IN MAY 2020 Australian Medical Association (BUT) issued a mental health warning. In the middle of SARS 2003 epidemic, the suicide rate increased among elderly women in Hong Kong. Studies suggest that suicide is also more common during recessions. Based on these precedents, the BUT projected that covid-19 could lead to a 25% increase in suicides. In some scenarios, the BUT considered, the additional deaths from self-injury could exceed those caused by covid-19 itself.
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Fortunately, this does not seem to have happened. Data from the Australian states of New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria show that there were 2% fewer suicides between April and September 2020 than in the same period of 2019.
Australia has experienced a mild pandemic compared to other western countries. However, even places ravaged by covid-19 exhibit a similar pattern. A recent study of 21 countries in the Lancet measured how suicide rates changed between the first and second quarters of 2020, after adjusting for seasonality and for the long-term trend in each country before the onset of the pandemic. In the median jurisdiction where figures are available – many data sources were subnational, such as provinces – there were 10% fewer suicides between April and June 2020 and 7% fewer than in the same months of 2019. Weighted by population, the average decreases were 7% compared to expectations and 11% compared to 2019.
The study focuses on the first months of the pandemic. In theory, the problem could have worsened over time. Suicides exploded in Japan late last year, resulting in the country’s first annual rise since 2009. Its government appointed a “loneliness minister” in response.
However, in the first quarter of 2021, Japan’s rate returned to its pre-pandemic level. Recent figures from other countries also show no signs of a spike in suicides. the Lancet The authors also analyzed the subset of jurisdictions for which data was available through October and found trends similar to those in the second quarter. Beyond that study, England reported a 12% drop in the year through September. And in America, an article by academics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found a 6% drop in 2020.
The surprisingly stable suicide rates suggest that the widely shared gloom does not necessarily predict deep individual hopelessness. One possible explanation is that by providing fiscal support that has protected citizens from the financial consequences of the pandemic, governments in rich countries have reduced a cause of stress that could, in the worst case, lead to suicide.
Few developing countries, which are less able to cushion economic shocks, have released data for 2020. However, Malawi reported a 52% increase in suicides last year. Although the country has not experienced a severe covid-19 outbreak or strict lockdown, its economy has slowed sharply. More data from other countries with weak social safety nets is needed to determine whether the financial lifelines offered by some governments have actually been successful in keeping particularly vulnerable people alive.■
Sources: “Trends in suicide in the early months of the covid-19 pandemic”, by Jane Pirkis et al .; national statistics; The Economist
This article appeared in the Graphic Details section of the print edition under the headline “Welcome reprieve”