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Researchers Worry Pandemic Will Lead To A Spike In Suicide Rate


One grim marker of a crisis is the number of calls to suicide hotlines. So far in this pandemic, those calls have not gone up, but history offers no cause for reassurance. Suicide rates often drop in the immediate aftermath of disasters only to rise later. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Jae (ph) is a healthy 33-year-old wife and mother. But a decade ago, a rare hormonal disease ravaged her body. She spent years without a diagnosis. That almost broke her emotionally.

JAE: I have attempted suicide two times.

NOGUCHI: The pandemic brought back that trauma. She came down with symptoms of COVID a few weeks ago. Once again, treatment eluded her.

JAE: We're in rural Montana, so there's basically one place I can go, and they're on high precautions. I don't know if I could get tested. I don't know if they'll see me. It was actually Good Friday, so they weren't open when I called.

NOGUCHI: Jae, who wishes to only use her first name, was already burdened with worry that her hours as a social worker might get cut, that her counselling patients might suffer.

JAE: I'm feeling really sick. It's been a long week. I'm dealing with all these new stressors. And there it is - for the first time in years, now I'm feeling suicidal myself.

NOGUCHI: The feeling was horrible but familiar. So Jae laid down, slept and let the panic recede. She eventually tested negative for COVID. Public health officials hope to surface the struggles and bolster the resilience of those like Jae before suicide becomes a problem of epic proportion because the risk of a spike is potentially huge. Factors like joblessness, addiction and profound isolation can feed into it. Suicide experts have studied the effects of trauma, from Hurricanes Katrina and Ike to the Great Recession. But this pandemic, with its global, geographic and psychosocial reach, has the potential to trump them all.

Roger McIntyre researches psychiatry at the University of Toronto.

ROGER MCINTYRE: The two most replicated, robust factors linked to suicide is economic change - downturn - and social disconnection.

NOGUCHI: Both major hallmarks of this pandemic. McIntyre's research on the pandemic and suicide published in the June edition of the journal World Psychiatry.

MCINTYRE: If, in fact, the unemployment rate is 10% to 20%, we came out at a staggering statistic of over 8,000 additional suicides over and above what would have been expected if COVID had never came into our lives.

NOGUCHI: And that's just in the U.S., which is already seeing troubling increases. So prevention advocates are doubling down. But addressing suicide is no simple task. It has complex roots. Often, it's linked to depression or mental illness, but not always. Joshua Gordon is director of the National Institute of Mental Health. He points to suicides a dozen years ago during the housing crisis.

JOSHUA GORDON: You can see that it's not just about the evictions, not just about the foreclosure. Most of them have a range of anywhere from five to 10 other significant adverse events in their lives - many of them financial but also personal and social - that raise one's risk.

NOGUCHI: In other words, outreach needs to address many sources of pain. Gordon's agency recently launched a national campaign with other groups promoting distress hotlines and community support. Teletherapy, which has seen massive growth, is promising, but not everyone can access it. Maria Oquendo says distraction is also effective. Oquendo is chair of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania.

MARIA OQUENDO: Oftentimes, people feel like - but I have this problem; I have to think about how I'm going to solve it. And when the individual is suicidal, that's the last thing that they should be doing.

NOGUCHI: One of the most powerful distractions is social connection - talking. Anja Burcak is 25, bipolar and lives in Mobile, Ala. She's stable, she says, in part because she leans on her online circle of friends, many of whom have survived suicide attempts themselves.

ANJA BURCAK: People unite more. I know, physically, we literally cannot do that, but they might be calling up people that they haven't called in years.

NOGUCHI: So the pandemic can cut both ways, she says. It causes stress, but people can also unite over it.

Yuki Noguchi, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.