Suicide, COVID-19, and How You Can Help

Sarah Borish, PhD
September 9, 2020
5 min read

It’s National Suicide Prevention Week, a time to reflect, educate, and support people whose lives have been affected by this national crisis. This year, healthcare providers have seen a profound increase in stress and anxiety levels due to the COVID-19 crisis. This has manifested itself in various ways including increased substance abuse and suicidal thoughts.

Suicide Prevention Week

Suicide Prevention Week runs from September 6 through September 12, and World Suicide Prevention Day is September 10. The goal is to increase awareness, decrease stigma, and encourage people to seek support. Research shows most people will show warning signs before a suicide, and this month the emphasis is on education so that others can notice those signs and intervene. Organizations will be hosting events all month long including live events and campaigns on social media. Free screenings for suicide risk will be available throughout the United States.

Here are some organizations hosting events and providing resources over the next week:

Thinking about suicide? Reach out:

Suicide & the COVID-19 Pandemic

By this point, there is general awareness regarding the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health. However, less has been published regarding the relationship between the pandemic and suicide. Contextually, suicide rates have been rising in the United States for many years predating the pandemic. In fact, in 2020, just before the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) published data indicating suicide rates had risen by 25% over the past 20 years. The reasons for this increase are complicated and can include everything from financial stress (such as during economic downturns and recessions), increased social isolation, and increased rates of mental illness. When those risk factors are considered in the context of the pandemic, it becomes clear why suicide rates have been spiking since March.

Drastic steps were taken in order to address the major public health crisis that COVID-19 presented and the effects are ongoing. People were asked to stay home and isolate themselves from their friends and families. Support services became less available. Many small businesses were forced to close, furloughing, or firing their employees in the process. Career and financial goals were devastated, particularly among people in the United States under 35.

Not only that, but long-term health consequences, secondary to COVID, have been disabling for some. Healthcare workers are repeatedly exposed to the trauma of risking their own lives to treat patients in overwhelmed hospitals. People are exposed nightly to news stories about the pandemic and racial injustice that have increased anxiety and distress regarding the future. Finally, as a nation, we are continuing to grieve the loss of nearly 200,000 of our fellow Americans.

A recent study predicted that as many as 75,000 more people will die “deaths of despair” in response to pandemic-related changes, up significantly from past years. These deaths include drug and alcohol misuse as well as suicide. Young adults, racial and ethnic minorities, essential workers, and unpaid caregivers may be particularly at risk. Given these stakes, active and aggressive intervention is imperative. So, what can we do?

“Research shows most people will show warning signs before a suicide and this month the emphasis is on education so that others can notice those signs and intervene.”

Know the Risk Factors and Warning Signs

According to the CDC, some key risk factors for suicide include:

  • past suicide attempts
  • a family history of suicide
  • local suicide epidemics
  • lack of social support
  • mental illness, particularly depression
  • hopelessness
  • easy access to lethal methods
  • talking about wanting to die or kill oneself
  • increasing drug and alcohol use
  • agitation, withdrawal, recklessness

One key factor I look for when working with patients is a hopelessness about their self and the future.

Lack of social support can also be an important consideration. Finally, easy access to lethal methods is a particularly concerning risk factor. Notably, sales of firearms have increased significantly during the pandemic. In terms of warning signs, the most obvious concern is talking about wanting to die or kill oneself. These statements should never be taken lightly. Other potential warning signs include increasing drug and alcohol use, agitation, withdrawal, recklessness, and concerns about being a burden to friends and family. This list of risk factors and warning signs is not exhaustive, but it’s a good place to start.

What to Do If You’re Concerned About Someone

If you’re worried about someone, take those concerns seriously. I always recommend having an honest, direct, and private conversation about your concerns. As a first step, active listening and providing space for someone to express themselves is essential. As the conversation progresses, ask directly about suicide. Asking someone about suicide will not put the idea in their head.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, it is important to avoid discussions on the value of life, ones that minimize their problems, or to give advice. If someone is not suicidal or having thoughts of suicide, you can still encourage them to seek treatment, and consider helping them contact their doctor or therapist.

However, if someone reports they are actively considering suicide, or you’re not sure, the next steps are critical. Call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline together (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1–800–273–8255) or text to speak with a counselor (text 741741). Go to the emergency room together or call 911. Stay with them until they have received appropriate care. Supporting someone who is at risk for suicide is not something that you should do alone, and there are great resources available for everyone involved.

Sarah Borish Ph.D. completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Virginia before getting her Master’s degree from Harvard University. She also attended Palo Alto University and completed a specialized track at Stanford University in clinical neuroscience and women’s health.

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Sarah Borish, PhD

Sarah Borish, PhD, is a clinical psychologist at Carbon Health. She enjoys focusing on the brain’s relationship to behavior and its effects on mental health.

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