WHEN AMERICA’S Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) carried out a survey this summer, it found that one in ten of the 5,400 respondents had seriously considered suicide in the previous month—about twice as many who had thought of taking their lives in 2018. For young adults, aged 18 to 24, the proportion was an astonishing one in four.
The survey, published in August, was one of a growing number of warnings about the toll that the pandemic is taking on the mental health of people. For legions, the coronavirus has upended or outright eliminated work, schooling and religious services. On top of that, lockdowns and other types of social distancing have aggravated loneliness and depression for many.
But are people acting on suicidal thoughts? It is too early to be sure. Almost all countries publish suicide statistics with a lag of a year or two; and in recent years, suicide has been declining in most, with America a notable exception. Information from police, hospitals, coroners, courts and others must be collected and carefully studied, in part because some families report events selectively, or untruthfully, in the hope that a loved one’s probable suicide will be ruled a natural or accidental death. A comprehensive picture of suicide in the time of covid-19 has therefore yet to emerge. But experts have reasons to fear the worst.
For one thing, calls to suicide hotlines are up. Some in America have seen volume multiply eight-fold, says Sally Curtin, a suicide expert at CDC. The number of young people seeking help has risen, as has the proportion in extreme distress, notes Brenda Scofield, chairwoman of Samaritans, a hotline charity, in Hong Kong. Talkspace, a New York firm that provides online therapy, says that video sessions have increased by 250% during the pandemic. The number of patients with severe anxiety is up by 40%, a leap unprecedented in Talkspace’s nine years of business. Neil Leibowitz, its chief medical officer, expects this to translate into what he euphemistically calls “a lot of downstream effects”.