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The risk of suicide in the pandemic

First slide

During times of great stress and crisis, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic, people can experience an increase of fear and despair. In some cases, unfortunately, the person loses a sense of hope and believes that death is preferable to continuing to live through the present hardship and tragedy. This point was sadly brought home recently when Dr. Lorna Breen, a New York doctor who had been working to save people infected with COVID-19 as the medical director of the emergency department of New York-Presbyterian Allen Hospital, took her own life while staying with family in Charlottesville.

Suicide rates in America

Suicide rates have been increasing over the past 20 years. From 1999 to 2018, the number of self-inflicted deaths rose 35 percent. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, suicide had risen to the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. However, with the pandemic, the risk of increased suicides continues. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported that between February and March of this year there was a 338 percent increase in calls to its Disaster Distress Helpline, which provides emotional support to people impacted by disasters. This dramatic rise in helpline calls indicates the growing degree to which people feel emotional stress due to the pandemic.

Risk factors

The primary factors that can lead to increased depression and contemplation of suicide are isolation, loneliness and despair. As people feel more cut off from friends, family and loved ones, they may feel the acute loss of their support system. And as the pandemic and social distancing protocols drag on, some people may feel a growing loss of hope and a surge of overwhelming fear. In their fear, they can lose sight of God in their life, and despair that things will ever change for the better. Whatever the reason, the pressure that the individual may feel becomes so great that they begin to see suicide as a better option. In some cases, the person may see suicide as their only option, if they believe that they do not have the ability to persevere in their current situation.

One group that is at high risk for suicide is the elderly. The fear of being at a higher risk for death from COVID-19 can cause significant stress. And the need, as a vulnerable group, to keep a safe distance from others increases the isolation and loneliness. In 2003, an increase in suicide among the elderly was noted following the SARS outbreak, largely due to the same factors and concerns that face us now with COVID-19. Tragically, the steps that could prevent someone from dying due to exposure to COVID-19 may drive them to take their own lives. 

Finally, another major risk factor is facing significant financial hardships. The highest rate of suicide in the United States occurred during the Great Depression. Job loss, financial ruin and food insecurity were rampant as 25 percent of Americans were unemployed in 1933. Today, individuals and families who face uncertainty due to job loss may also begin to feel despair if their situation does not change soon.

Keep hope alive

While the situation may seem bleak and hopeless for some, it is crucial to support those feeling overwhelming despair. The use of smartphones and videoconference platforms can be a preventative factor, as it gives people an option to remain connected and support each other. Also, when communities are able to rally together, the rate of suicide decreases. For example, suicide rates declined after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as the nation was able to unify around shared grief.

We can work to strengthen our own communities, whether that means our neighborhoods or our parishes. We can make an effort to reach out to those who are isolated, or those facing emotional or financial hardships. We can pray for and with those who are despairing. We can show them that they are loved, and that their lives matter.

Horne is director of clinical services for diocesan Catholic Charities.

Find out more

For help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 800/273-TALK (8255), or the Disaster Distress Helpline, 800/985-5990.

To make a teletherapy appointment with a Catholic Charities counselor, call 703/425-0109 or 540/371-1124.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020