Suicide in a Covid world

14 April 2021 | Health

Experts at Stellenbosch University (SU) are involved in an important international study tracking suicide rates across the globe since the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic. This research is published in the latest edition of The Lancet Psychiatry.
The authors note that, while their study provides the best available evidence on the pandemic’s effects on suicide so far, it only provides a snapshot of the first few months of the pandemic and effects on suicide might not necessarily occur immediately.
Prof Jason Bantjes of the Institute for Life Course Health Research at SU’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences is part the International Covid-19 Suicide Prevention Research Collaboration (ICSPRC) that conducted the research. The ICSPRC is an international network of suicide prevention experts collaborating to understand the impact of the pandemic on suicide rates globally.
“This is the first study to examine suicides across the globe during the Covid-19 pandemic, and SU’s Institute for Life Course Health Research is proud to be part of this network of international world leaders in the field of suicide prevention,” Bantjes says of the research.
“Available data suggests that suicide rates in high-income and upper-middle-income countries have remained largely unchanged and have even declined in some instances. Of course, this does not mean that people are not in psychological distress as a result of Covid-19, but it does highlight the reality that there is not a simple linear relationship between psychological distress and suicide.

‘Network of factors’
Psychological distress is only one factor in a complex network of factors that lead to suicide.
Bantjes said that a lack of reliable current suicide data from low- and middle-income countries makes it impossible to know what is happening in many parts of the world. “It is too soon to know what impact the pandemic has had on suicide rates, but we should not assume suicide rates will necessarily increase until we have seen and properly analysed the data. We need to continue to monitor suicide statistics so that we can make informed evidence-based decisions about how to respond.”
Lead author, Prof Jane Pirkis, Director of the Centre for Mental Health at the University of Melbourne, Australia, says: “We need to continue to monitor the data and be alert to any increases in suicide, particularly as the pandemic’s full economic consequences emerge. We know that many people have had their lives changed dramatically by the pandemic, and the journey for some of them is ongoing. We need to recognise that suicide is not the only indicator of the negative mental health effects of the pandemic – levels of community distress are high, and we need to ensure that people are supported.”
The authors say that it is likely that mental health effects of the pandemic will vary between and within countries, and over time, depending on factors such as the extent of the pandemic, the public health measures used to control it, the capacity of existing mental health services and suicide prevention programmes, and the strength of the economy and relief measures to support those whose livelihoods are affected by the pandemic.
Few studies have examined the effects of any widespread infectious disease outbreaks on suicide. The new study included around 70 authors from 30 countries who are members of the ICSPRC, which was created to share knowledge about the impact of the pandemic on suicide and suicidal behaviour, and advise on ways to mitigate any risks.
Bantjes concluded that suicide can be prevented, and that help is available. “People who are feeling suicidal should seek professional help, reach out to their social support systems and make use of crises services such as those offered by LifeLine.

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