Suicide and COVID-19: Who Is Most at Risk During the Pandemic?

As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, millions of Americans are experiencing concurrent mental health concerns such as anxiety and depression. During late June 2020, a report by the CDC found that 40% of U.S. adults were struggling with mental health concerns and substance use.

What is more alarming is that the amount of adults expressing suicidal ideation has gone up as well. The same CDC report found 11% of its respondents reported having seriously considered suicide in the 30 days prior to completing the survey—over twice as many respondents as a similar report in 2018.

The report also highlights some specific populations that appear to be at a higher risk for experiencing suicidal ideation during COVID-19:

  • Young adults
  • Essential workers
  • Racial and ethnic minorities
  • Unpaid adult caregivers

Young Adults

The CDC survey found that 75% of respondents aged 18 to 24 reported at least one adverse mental health or behavioral health symptom, and an astounding 25% of these respondents reported serious suicidal ideation. The challenges of socially distancing have removed many young adults from their normal support systems, which are normally a large protective factor against suicidal ideation.

Additionally, young adulthood is a period of emerging social roles and transitions—going to college, completing a higher education degree, entering the workforce, among others. For many, having these goals thwarted or adjusted due to the pandemic can be very distressing, leaving many young adults feeling uncertain or hopeless about the future.

Essential Workers

21.7% of essential workers surveyed expressed having seriously considered suicide in the past 30 days. Symptoms of COVID-related trauma and increases in substance use were also much more prevalent among essential workers than nonessential workers.

Essential workers include healthcare professionals, but they also include factory workers, grocery store clerks, and other occupations that traditionally pay low wages. The lack of job security, paid sick leave, and other benefits leave many essential workers struggling to determine if they should show up to work with symptoms or lose days or weeks’ worth of wages staying home. Many essential workers also fear bringing COVID-19 home to their family members, including those who may have underlying medical conditions or other factors making them higher-risk.

Racial and Ethnic Minorities

The percentage of individuals who reported having seriously considered suicide in the past 30 days was significantly higher among racial and ethnic minority respondents than white respondents. 7.9% of white respondents reported considering suicide, while this increased to 15.1% for Black respondents and 18.6% for Hispanic respondents. The increase in suicidal ideation among Black Americans is especially concerning, as the rate of Black teenage suicides is rising far faster than white teens.

The increase in suicidal ideation among racial and ethnic minorities reflects a disparity in the amount of stress and trauma they are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Racial minorities are more likely to be low-wage essential workers, and they are also dying at higher rates from COVID-19 than their white counterparts. The subsequent grief, depression, and trauma from seeing family and community members fall ill are just some of the challenges leading to this increase in suicidal ideation.

Unpaid Adult Caregivers

Perhaps most concerning, unpaid caregivers for adults who did not report having seriously considered suicide in May 2020 had three times the odds of reporting suicidal ideation in June. Additionally, 66% of unpaid caregivers reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health symptom at the time of the report and had an increase in substance use.

Many unpaid caregivers for adults are currently providing critical aid to individuals who are at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19 or may even be caring for an individual who has contracted COVID-19. In addition, 39% of unpaid caregivers for adults are also sharing a household with children—adding an additional layer of caregiving stress.

Addressing Suicidal Ideation

The elevated prevalence of anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation associated with the pandemic highlight how impactful it has been on mental health and wellbeing, as well as how critical it is for individuals experiencing these conditions to receive treatment.

By identifying the populations who are at an increased risk for suicidal ideation during this challenging time, organizations and clinicians have a better understanding of how to target interventions for these individuals. Expanding the use of telehealth, for example, can be an effective means of delivering treatment and other resources that could help reduce COVID-19 related mental health conditions.

The pandemic shows no signs of slowing down, so it is imperative for providers keep their finger on the pulse of how COVID-19 is affecting mental health, especially the prevalence of suicidal ideation. Learning how to effectively screen for suicidal ideation, provide treatment, and prevent future incidences is critical to providing effective mental health care during this time.

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, there is hope. Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255 or text TALK to 741741.

Nellie Galindo

Product Marketing Manager, Relias

Nellie Galindo received her Master of Social Work and Master of Science in Public Health from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has worked with individuals with disabilities in several different settings, including working as a direct service provider for individuals with mental illness and leading a youth program for young adults with disabilities. She has facilitated and created trainings for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the areas of self-advocacy, healthy relationships, sexual health education, and violence and abuse prevention. Galindo has worked in state government helping individuals with disabilities obtain accessible health information in their communities, as well as utilizing the Americans with Disabilities Act to ensure equal access to healthcare services.

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