- Suicides decreased by almost 6 percent last year during the COVID-19 pandemic, the sharpest drop in 4 decades.
- Experts say one reason is people tend to rally around each other during times of crisis, such as a pandemic or war.
- They added that people tend to be open about their feeling during these times and more likely to seek mental health services.
As unsettling as the COVID-19 pandemic has been for so many, officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say suicides in the United States actually went down nearly 6 percent last year.
The decline to fewer than 45,000 suicides is the largest annual drop in at least 4 decades, although experts say the number will likely change as some death certificates haven't been fully processed yet.
According to statistics recently published by the American Medical Association, overall U.S. deaths increased 17 percent in 2020 with COVID-19 being the third-leading cause behind heart disease and cancer.
But the downward trend in suicides is still surprising, given that Americans have reported increased depression, anxiety, and substance use during the pandemic. Gun sales have also gone up dramatically.
Although experts say the data is preliminary and can change, they also point to Americans’ ability to come together and support one another during a crisis.
“It’s hard to determine exactly why suicide death decrease during times of crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, but we have seen this in other instances like the Spanish flu pandemic during the early 1900s,” Dr. Christine Yu Moutier, the chief medical officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, told Healthline.
“One explanation is that during times of national or community level crisis — natural disasters, war, other crises — there is a known population level response that undergoes phases of change in the psychological response,” she explained.
“Community cohesion and sense of belonging is a very potent protective factor against suicide risk, along with other experiences like connecting to support and mental health service,” she said.
People have been more open about their feelings during the pandemic, generating more empathy and relatability from others, according to Cecily Sakai, a Honolulu-based psychologist.
This is especially true for people who never experienced depression before, she noted.
“It may be more acceptable and accessible to receive mental health treatment since the pandemic. With greater awareness about mind-body health and the effects of COVID-19 on a person’s physical health as well as mental health, more people may be seeking out therapy,” Sakai told Healthline.
“Rates of suicide may be impacted by individuals receiving treatment. With more people being home and telehealth visits with therapists being more accessible, people may be better able to access and take advantage of mental health services than in the past,” she said.
Some experts add that the stark reality of life during a pandemic has been a wake-up call for many, forcing people to reprioritize their lives.
“My patients have stated that this year has helped them better conceptualize what they need versus what they want,” said Dr. Leela R. Magavi, regional medical director for Community Psychiatry in Newport Beach, California. “People have shared that simple things, when observed and felt comprehensively, can add significant value and happiness to their day-to-day life.”
“People are understanding the value of mindfulness. Many people are taking walks and spending time in nature. Once individuals identify how life is more simple and beautiful with mindfulness and periods of silence and meditation, it can create a pattern of healthy behavior, thanks to neuroplasticity and rewiring of the brain,” Magavi told Healthline.
“I’m hopeful that some of the changes, which have prioritized moment over ritual, will stick post-pandemic,” she added.
Moutier said it’s important to remember COVID-19 and its mitigating effects, such as physical distancing, do not alone cause suicide.
“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, suicidal ideation, and access to lethal means, may lead to periods of increased risk,” she said.
Moutier points out this new data hasn’t been broken down yet, and the decrease in suicides may not be true for all groups.
She also said the data may not be fully understood for at least another year.
“In light of all this, I still remain optimistic that protective mental health measures are having a positive impact amid a time of collective distress, and there’s a readiness to engage and implement effective suicide prevention strategies widely,” she said.
Learn more about the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention on their website.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, you’re not alone. Help is available right now. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7 at 800-273-8255, or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.