Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Deaths by Suicide Drop in 2020 While Overall Deaths Soared During Pandemic

Deaths by suicide declined by almost 6% from 2019 to 2020, according to a report in JAMA based on statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The decline is one hopeful finding in an otherwise grim report that revealed a 17.7% increase in overall deaths in 2020, with most of those directly attributable to COVID-19.

“The reported decrease in deaths by suicide makes us hopeful that protective mental health measures are having a positive impact amid a time of collective distress,” said Christine Moutier, M.D., chief medical officer for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), in a statement. “While we don’t know the exact contributors to the reported decline in suicides, research does show us that prioritizing and having open, honest dialog about mental health on the individual and national levels, implementing practices that reduce suicide risk in clinical and community settings, and seeking help early and when indicated can reduce suicide deaths.”

In the JAMA report, Farida B. Ahmad, M.P.H., and Robert Anderson, Ph.D., of the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics looked at deaths that occurred from January through December 2020, as reported in the National Vital Statistics System. A total of 44,834 deaths by suicide occurred in 2020, a decrease of 5.6% from the 47,511 suicides in 2019. In contrast, the overall number of deaths increased by 503,976 (17.7%) in 2020, with 345,323 of those attributable to COVID-19.

While the AFSP statement noted that the reported decline in suicide deaths is encouraging, it cautioned that much remains unknown about the impact of COVID-19 on suicides. “Suicide is complex, risk is dynamic, and an individual’s personal risk factors combined with precipitants such as evolving experiences with isolation, depression, anxiety, economic stress, and suicidal ideation and access to lethal means may lead to periods of increased risk,” the AFSP statement noted.

AFSP President Maria A. Oquendo, M.D., Ph.D., who also is a past APA president, said it is not entirely surprising that people are less likely to die by suicide in the wake of a collective, community trauma.

“Suicidologists have long observed that suicide rates tend to decline after a catastrophe,” she told Psychiatric News. “The reason is unknown, but some hypotheses include the possibility that individuals become more externally focused given the environmental threat, that the community cohesion that sometimes follows catastrophe has beneficent effects, or that community suffering makes personal suffering more tolerable.”

For related information, see the Psychiatric News article “Expect a ‘Long Tail’ of Mental Health Effects From COVID-19.”

(Image: iStock/Juanmonino)

Complete Survey on How Psychiatrists Can Address Racial Inequities Today

Today, April 14, is the last day to complete the most recent survey by the APA Presidential Task Force to Address Structural Racism Throughout Psychiatry. Learn more about the task force and view the results of its previous three surveys on the task force webpage.


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