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We need to be more careful when we talk about suicide and the pandemic

By Clare Wilson

As the world grapples with the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, there are widespread predictions that the fallout would lead to an increase in suicide rates. Fortunately, the numbers available so far suggest that this did not happen. Therefore, it is important that we rein this alarmist narrative now to avoid a self-fulfilling prophecy from creating itself.

It is understandable that when bans were first introduced, there were concerns about the mental health impact of such an extreme measure. People are naturally sociable, and so it has always been difficult to force people to cut back on their friends and families.

Mix in fear of getting a potentially fatal virus, loss of income, and less access to mental health services, and it seemed like a recipe for disaster. Some commentators made predictions of a sharp rise in suicides, which in some cases has been reported with sensational language. Fortunately, this has not yet been confirmed. While suicide numbers usually take many months to publish, the first signs of 2020 suggest that there has been no spike this year.

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In the Australian state of Victoria, where a very strict 16-week vesting period ended last month, the latest figures show that the suicide figures in the eight months from January to August 2020 were no different from the same months last year. In British Columbia, the corresponding numbers appear to have decreased slightly from a year earlier.

Now a report has just been published online which includes suicide data for three unnamed areas of England with a total population of 9 million people. Although there was a slight year-on-year increase from April to August 2020, the report’s authors assume that not all cases were recorded in 2019 as police and coroners were still getting used to the new real-time reporting system. Fortunately, the average monthly value for April to August 2020 was roughly the same as for January to March 2020. The official lockdown in England began on March 23rd.

It is important to note that these are only the earliest numbers available and will not prevent suicide rates from rising in the long term. Nor do they negate the fact that several studies suggest there has been an increase in people saying they feel anxious or distressed, presumably because of the pandemic or its aftermath. The conclusion that such feelings will result in more people killing themselves is a massive assumption.

It’s also potentially dangerous, as suicidal deaths have one unusual characteristic. Unlike deaths from heart disease or cancer, media coverage can lead to an increase in suicide deaths. It is well known that news of a celebrity suicide can lead to a later surge in such public deaths, especially among those using the same method. A similar effect can be seen when newspapers report an unusual number of suicides in a given location.

Mental health charities have long had guidelines on how the media should report suicide in order to minimize this risk. They say the coverage should not include sensational language, nor should it suggest that someone died from a simple cause, as this can encourage others in a similar situation to follow suit.

Some researchers fear that sensational predictions of a surge in suicide could normalize the idea that this is a rational way to respond to the pandemic. Now that the first numbers are in, we can see that claims that suicides would increase during the pandemic seem false. It is time for such dangerous predictions to stop.

Do you need an open ear? UK Samaritans: 116123 (samaritans.org). Visit bit.ly/SuicideHelplines for hotlines and websites for other countries

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