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Will the Covid-19 pandemic lead to an increase in suicides?

Mental health has preoccupied a lot of our thinking and broadcast time during the pandemic. Governments have taken trouble to sensitise us to the toll that isolation takes. After disasters, ironically, people recover, despite the absolute devastation of an earthquake or tsunami. We saw the resilience of the Brits, for example, after the Blitz, with the belief that what didn’t kill them made them stronger. These are early days in an unscheduled global experiment, and we don’t know what the toll on our mental well-being will be and whether the disruption will lead to an increase in suicides.

After 9/11, it seemed as if nothing would be the same again. The world fundamentally changed that September day and many thought they would never travel again. Then we adapted to the new normal of flying with more security and less baggage. In 2008, the economic meltdown destroyed many lives. It took the world years to get back on its axis. It became a transition from one way of life to another, and it’s where we find ourselves again in lockdown.

“It’s a natural experiment, in a way,” said Matthew Nock, a psychology professor at Harvard. “There’s not only an increase in anxiety, but the more important piece is social isolation.” He added, “We’ve never had anything like this — and we know social isolation is related to suicide.”

People take their own lives for a variety of reasons, and often it is a result of mental health problems. When people get clinically depressed, as it is easy to do during the pandemic, they often feel eternally doomed and hopeless. Sometimes in very severe cases, depressed individuals can develop delusional beliefs that they are being punished by a higher force or taken over by dark forces and will never recover. These delusions tend to manifest in borderline psychotic depressive episodes. Such intense hopeless, helpless and powerless beliefs can tragically lead people to end their lives.

Suicide can also be an impulsive act when impulsive individuals, often under the effects of excessive substance abuse, take their lives as a result of feeling overcome by an intensely maudlin and negative mood. Things may have looked better for them the following day had they not acted, sadly. Then there is the classic cry for help, drawing people’s attention to how desperate one may be feeling or the desire to end unbearable emotional and physical suffering and pain.

Some people view death as a preferable option to life. It’s usually men who have this seemingly rational and detached approach to suicide. They tend to be individuals who struggle to find meaning and purpose in life. These are often highly intelligent people who have logical explanations for their beliefs. They tend to describe a lack of feeling and seem to have no sadness at the prospect of their lives ending.

Loss of business and status, economic hardship or insurmountable debts can trigger feelings of failure which can lead to depression and exacerbate suicidal thoughts. We know that in the US suicide rates have grown exponentially for the last two decades across all age groups, but after the financial disaster of 2008, the numbers doubled. A declining economy, job loss and evictions can be catastrophic.

We have always lived in uncertain times — the one certainty is uncertainty. Still, the uncertainty of the pandemic may lead us in future to discover whether the coronavirus influenced peoples’ thoughts, perhaps leading them to believe exaggerated things that intensify negative mood states. The epidemic could make people feel that their future is hopeless, leading them to feel desperate. Moreover, thoughts about changed lives may have “forever” and “permanence” stamped all over them.

As the lockdown eases, and we anxiously wait to see if a second wave engulfs the world, we will discover the effects of isolation, the consequences for the most vulnerable and whether it drove some of them to make the ultimate decision.