Suicides declined during the COVID-19 pandemic, surprising researchers

If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time day or night, or chat online.

Deaths by suicide fell 9% at the height of the pandemic shutdown compared with previous years, a surprise given increases in reported levels of stress, anxiety and depression. 

There were more than 2,400 fewer deaths by suicide between March and August 2020 than normally would have been expected, said Dr. Jeremy Samuel Faust,  an emergency physician in the Division of Health Policy and Public Health at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and an instructor at Harvard Medical School.

The results were published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“They went down, and they went down dramatically at the peak of the shelter in place period,” said Faust, who co-wrote the paper. “In April we had a 16% decrease of suicides, and that’s the time when most of the country was shut down.”

The numbers are at odds with predictions last year that “deaths of despair” from suicide, alcohol and drugs could go as high as 150,000. Former President Donald Trump raised the alarm as a rational against extended lockdown orders.

Death rates for suicide have been increasing for years, climbing 35% since 1999.

That changed last year. For all of 2020, suicide deaths declined by 5.6%, according to preliminary data from the National Center for Health Statistics. That compares with increases in deaths from heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes. 

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