Pandemic Not a Factor In Death by Suicide Rates

Experts say early data shows no changes in rates of people who die by suicide

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 47,511 Americans died by suicide in 2019. The CDC’s most recent statewide statistics from 2017 indicate that suicide is the second leading cause of death for New York state residents aged 15 to 34. From 2016 to 2018, death by suicide increased in Upstate by 3.2% among all age groups with the average age at death 47.3 years, according to the New York State Department of Health.

Although little data has been gathered about the pandemic’s influence on suicide, area experts report that it appears that rates of death by suicide have not increased because of COVID-19.

“Early indications have shown from some reporting states that there’s no change or else declines from previous years,” said Missy Stolfi, master’s in education and area director for American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Her area covers Buffalo to Utica. “Suicidal ideation has increased during COVID, but we’ve also seen people reaching out to get help whether calling crisis lines, telehealth options for mental health.”

She said that telehealth has helped break down mental healthcare barriers, including stigma, transportation, childcare, scheduling conflicts and mobility. That has helped mitigate the negative factors the pandemic has brought, such as isolation, lack of regular coping mechanisms and normality and anxiety about finances, the future and becoming ill.

“One thing that’s important to keep in mind whether pre-pandemic or not, is suicide risk is complex,” Stolfi said. “It’s easy to point to one thing to say, ‘That brought about someone’s death by suicide.’ There are a lot of things we can do to mitigate risk.”

One of the key things is to talk about and normalize mental health. The pandemic has promoted mental health as an important topic. Many people have become more active in checking in with one another and have demonstrated more understanding about others’ mental state. Self-care has also become more widely accepted.

“More people checking in created a sense of connection,” Stolfi said. “People were more in touch with family and friends because they were not running around. People slowed down, reassessed and found new ways to connect. The patterns of taking care of ourselves shifted and they continue to.”

She hopes these trends of connectedness continue long-term.

As people begin to return to workplaces and normal activities, new anxieties are arising such as worries about returning to work, new virus variants arising and what other unknowns the future may hold.

Corey Leindenfrost, Ph.D., and unit chief of transitions with UB, said that some minority groups saw an increase in the rate early in the pandemic.

“Between March and May 2020 in Maryland, African Americans had twice the rate of suicide compare with pre-pandemic numbers while Caucasians had half as many for the same time period,” Leindenfrost said.

Age and gender also seemed factors. When looking at a CDC study that looked at suspected attempts, adolescent girls showed 30% to 50% elevated presentation compared with the same period in 2019, while the numbers remained constant for adults and boys.

“It seems for suicide attempts and completed, it affects different groups in different ways,” Leindenfrost said.

He thinks it is possible that poor access to healthcare could explain the higher rate among African Americans and COVID-related isolation for the adolescent girls. He said that these factors among others caused by the pandemic, exacerbated risk factors present long-term, along with a lack of normal coping mechanisms. He foresees the mental health fallout from the pandemic will continue for years.

“We need to devote as much resources to mental healthcare as we do to medical care,” Leindenfrost said. “It’s about continuing to talk about it in the media and focusing on it and letting people know that there’s help out there.”

Katie Coric, suicide prevention coordinator at VA Western New York Healthcare System, also highlighted the pandemic’s “silver lining” of increased awareness to mental health.

“Though we’re not seeing an increase in suicide risk, we’re seeing an increase in the Veteran Crisis Line,” Coric said. “That’s a good thing; that people are realizing that something in their life isn’t feeling right. We can send the local suicide prevention team and get them set up with treatment or they need some financial assistance.

“Some anticipate they’re losing housing or want to get connected with a mental health counselor. So many people are saying, ‘This is tough for all of us.’”

Because of telehealth, more people can access services to help them.

“Increased focus on mental health and easier access are huge factors as far as decreasing suicide rate and helping people feel supported,” Coric said. “People are rallying together. We’re all experiencing this in real time and different stressors based upon what our life is like. I’m hoping that this shows a decrease in mental health stigma. No one is immune. We can have compassion for ourselves, coworkers and neighbors. At some time, all of us will need help.”

Anyone struggling should contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. The Veterans Crisis Line is 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1 or contact the text line at 838255.