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Suicide and COVID-19: Risks That Surfaced During the Pandemic

During the coronavirus pandemic, millions of Americans experienced concurrent mental health concerns, such as anxiety and depression. In June 2020, a CDC report found that 40% of U.S. adults struggled with mental health concerns and substance use. What was more alarming was that the amount of adults expressing thoughts of suicide went up during the COVID-19 pandemic. The same report found 11% of respondents had seriously considered suicide in the 30 days prior to completing the survey. This was more than twice as many respondents as a similar report in 2018.

The report also highlights some specific populations that were 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 social distancing 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. For example, going to college, completing a higher education degree, and entering the workforce, among others. For many, having these goals thwarted or adjusted due to the pandemic proved very distressing. This distress, in turn, left many young adults feeling uncertain or hopeless about the future.

Essential workers

21.7% of essential workers surveyed expressed having seriously considered suicide during the COVID-19 pandemic. 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 traditionally low paying occupations. The lack of job security, paid sick leave, and other benefits left many essential workers struggling to determine if they should show up to work with symptoms or lose days or weeks’ worth of wages by staying home. Many essential workers also feared bringing COVID-19 home to their family members, including those who may have had underlying medical conditions or other factors that made them higher-risk.

Racial and ethnic minorities

The percentage of individuals who reported having seriously considered suicide during the COVID-19 pandemic 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 the suicide rates among white teens.

The increase in suicidal ideation among racial and ethnic minorities reflects a disparity in the amount of stress and trauma they faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Racial minorities are more likely to be low-wage essential workers. What’s more, they died 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 that lead to this increase in suicidal ideation.

Unpaid adult caregivers

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 2020. According to the report, 66% of unpaid caregivers reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health symptom. This group also experienced an increase in substance use.

Many unpaid caregivers for adults provided critical aid to individuals who were at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19 or cared for an individual who had contracted COVID-19. Additionally, 39% of unpaid caregivers for adults were also sharing a household with children—adding an additional layer of stress.

Addressing suicidal ideation

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

By identifying the populations who are at an increased risk for suicidal ideation, 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.

Though the pandemic is over, the COVID-19 virus seems like it’s here to say. As such, 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.

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.


Webinar: Addressing the Growing Rate of Suicide in the Black Community

Mental health disorders and suicidal ideation are topics not typically discussed in communities of color. With the COVID-19 pandemic affecting Black mental health specifically, it’s critically important that clinicians and organizations learn how to identify, assess, and prevent suicide. Join our speaker Ifeanyi Olele, DO, MBA, MS, as he shares information on the growing rate of suicide in the Black community and how to address it.

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