This story contains discussion of suicide. If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
The COVID-19 pandemic triggered a mental health crisis that experts say the U.S. may have to battle for years to come.
As Americans lost their loved ones, their jobs and their health to COVID-19, various reports showed a steady rise in anxiety, depression and substance use disorders. But despite surges in these mental health issues, a government study found suicide deaths decreased during this period.
The overall number of suicides in 2020 was 3% lower than in 2019, according to the study conducted by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics. Suicide rates were 2% lower for males and 8% lower for females in 2020.
“Suicide is complex and multifaceted and just having an increase in risk factors does not translate to more deaths by suicide,” said the study’s lead author Sally Curtin, a health statistician at NCHS. “The findings illustrate the complexity of suicide.”
Mental health experts say the findings build on the previous year’s decline. The number of annual suicide deaths had increased steadily from 2003 through 2018, until it fell by 2% between 2018 and 2019.
However, the report found suicide deaths increased among people of color. The suicide rate among Hispanic males increased 5% from 2019 to 2020. Researchers also saw an increase for Black men and American Indian or Alaska Native men, although the findings were not statistically significant, they said.
The pandemic disproportionately affected people of color across the board, said Dr. Melissa Shepard, a board certified psychiatrist, psychotherapist and assistant professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. They were more likely to get COVID-19, more likely to lose a loved one from the disease and more likely to lose a job.
“There has been a very big push to raise awareness on suicide and how to prevent suicide and spotting the signs,” she said. “We’re doing a good job with some populations and not with others … whatever sort of advocacy that we’re doing, it’s not reaching (people of color).”
Suicides rates also differed by age group. Men may have seen an overall 2% decrease in suicide rates but rates increased in those ages 10 to 14 by 13%, and 5% among those 25 to 34. The rate was also 4% higher in women aged 15 to 24, but authors noted it did not reach statistical significance.
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The monthly number of suicide deaths was lower in 2020 than in 2019 in March through October and December, but higher in January, February and November. July had the highest number of suicide deaths in 2020, which experts expected.
“Typically what happens is the highest number of suicides are in the summer and the lowest are in the late fall and winter,” Curtin said.
The provisional data in the report may be encouraging, experts say, but they’re waiting to see the full data as suicide deaths are difficult to accurately capture.
Many suicide deaths are misidentified and many factors contribute to suicide, such as economic stability, not just mental health, Shepard said.
“We often think of depression having a spectrum that becomes suicide at the end but that’s a very simplistic take. Suicide ultimately is a potential behavioral manifestation of many things,” she said. “You don’t necessarily have to be depressed in order to have to think about suicide.”
The mental health crisis driven by the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, and the report shows more must be done to reach vulnerable communities that have little to no safety nets, said Dr. Vivian Pender, president of the American Psychiatric Association and clinical professor at Weill Cornell Medical College.
“The bottom line is that people are still anxious, still depressed and now they’re worn out. … I don’t see the mental health crisis getting better any time soon,” Pender said. “The more vigilant we are on mental health, the more we advocate for resources at all level of care, the better we will be.”
Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT.
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