Suicide Prevention During the Coronavirus Pandemic: 6 Strategies From a Suicide Prevention Expert by Dr. Robert Cramer

Mental Health
4 years ago

Suicide Prevention During the Coronavirus Pandemic: 6 Strategies From a Suicide Prevention Expert

"I'm talking about where people suffer massive depression, where people commit suicide, where tremendous death happens ... I mean, definitely would be in far greater numbers than the numbers that we're talking about with regard to the virus." (Monday, March 23, 2020)

"You're going to lose a number of people to the flu, but you're going to lose more people by putting a country into a massive recession or depression ... You're gonna lose people. You're gonna have suicides by the thousands." (Tuesday, March 24, 2020)

President Trump brought suicide to the forefront of national discussion in defending the decision to move toward re-opening the economy to stave off a recession. While coronavirus is estimated to kill thousands of Americans, suicide is a perennial public health problem. For that reason alone, continuing to talk about the issue is critically important.

However, the way we talk about suicide matters. Use of phrases such as commit suicide have fallen out of favor because they convey stigma about mental health and suicide. That stigma may actually worsen things for people experiencing suicidal thinking by sending messages of blame, and lessening efforts by persons in need to seek help. Guidelines exist to promote responsible reporting and public discussion about suicide.

National leadership’s tone about the topic is not sensible and the narrative is not evidence-based. Sensationalizing suicide, and irresponsibly trying to predict “tremendous” suicide death “in the thousands,” only serves to stoke fear and anxiety, potentially worsening the problem of suicide risk.

The fact of the matter is that assessing the veracity of these basic claims is difficult. Will suicidal thinking, attempt and death rise during or immediately after the pandemic or a recession? Trump’s statements and relying on recession-based data also presume we will end up with a lingering recession.

What do we know about pandemics, economic strain and suicide rates? We could only locate one study addressing the direct matter of pandemic and suicide, which has considerable limitations. Two other recent events we may be able to draw on for insight reach conflicting conclusions. There is modest evidence that suicide rates may drop or remain steady after major events like 9/11. On the other hand, there is some evidence of an increase in recession-related suicide rates. All of these studies are tempered by recent evidence suggesting the field of suicide prevention does little better than a 50/50 coin flip in predicting suicide.

So where do we go from here? The best approach is a public health prevention model. We need to implement safeguards, from communities, organizations and all the way down to individuals to prevent the worsening of suicide-related behavior in times of unique pandemic and economic stress. A few considerations and strategies during the pandemic are:

  • Social Connectedness: Theories of suicide and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approach to suicide prevention repeatedly highlight the importance of social connection. Social isolation, on the other hand, can worsen suicide risk. Fortunately, technology-based and old-fashioned ways of staying connected exist. Suicide prevention literature also shows that sending caring contacts can help us feel connected. We may send letters or postcards, even electronically, especially to persons we know to be quarantined or otherwise isolated. Those in need of connection can always reach out via the National Lifeline (1-800-273-Talk) or CrisisText (Text “Home” to 741741). We also acknowledge these suggestions may not be possible where challenges exist for vulnerable populations.
  • Crisis Call Center Funding and Support: A public health approach relies on crisis call centers. Interestingly, evidence supports persons reaching out to call centers are often seeking social support or connection. Federal, state and county governments should act swiftly to ensure staffing and funding support as part of any comprehensive pandemic or economic recession planning. More practical guidance on crisis call centers has also been offered.
  • Financial Policy-making: A team of United Kingdom researchers provided a roadmap of factors that may impact suicide during times of economic crisis. They highlighted pathways to suicide beginning with perceived threat of job loss and actual loss (of job, home, etc.) leading to relationship conflict and worsening debt. The financial stresses contribute to poor mental health and coping. In our time of pandemic and economic loss, policy makers should invest in funding of welfare, unemployment insurance and other policies to stem the impacts of job and financial loss. As the U.S. government has just passed an economic stimulus package, it remains clear that strong financial supports to individuals, families, and small businesses is vital when placed in suicide prevention terms.

The coronavirus poses economic, health and other challenges for us all. Suicide is certainly a pressing matter within the discussion. We are all in the suicide prevention effort together. Stay connected, support others, share helpful resources and advocate for smart public discourse and policy.

The information on is for informational and entertainment purposes only, and should not be considered medical advice. The information provided through this site should not be used to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease, and is not a substitute for professional care. Always consult your personal healthcare provider.

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Oh my goodness, I hope this doesn't happen.
Elisa Schmitz
What a needed perspective on this right now, Dr. Robert Cramer . Thank you so much for sharing this helpful info. Stay safe, everyone. Welcome to 30Seconds. We look forward to learning more from you!

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