Have Covid-19 Lock-Downs Actually Increased Suicide?

Trigger warning: this article discusses suicide rates and causes.

Though there were few solid arguments against lock-downs during Australia’s hopefully near-concluded Covid-19 pandemic, mental health concerns were some of the most compelling. What is the human cost, we wondered, of mass social isolation, of widespread unemployment, and of small business owners seeing their hard work disintegrate?

With 2020 drawing to a close there are now a number of data points on this question. A team at the Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention at Griffith University recently found that in Queensland, suicide numbers were unchanged by the pandemic.

In November, the NSW Health Ministry also reported that suicide numbers were almost identical from 2019 to 2020. Victorian authorities’ annual report – for the period mid-August 2019 to mid-August 2020, with Melbourne roughly halfway through its second lock-down – also saw suicide figures unchanged.

These reports are roughly in line with findings in other countries. Though more comprehensive data will inevitably emerge, the British Medical Journal reported suicide unchanged in Massachusetts and England and lower in Norway and Japan.

This is not at all intended to minimise the issue. Suicide numbers have been rising in England for 20 years. NSW and Victoria together have around 1,100 suicides annually.

It’s also very tricky to speculate on why this is happening. Indeed, it was not just laypeople but also mental health experts who predicted a substantial increase in suicides during Covid-19.

Having said, there are some indications. Risk factors for suicide include the obvious – depression, PTSD, domestic violence, substance misuse – but also the sociological: unemployment, financial insecurity, and a sense of hopelessness or burdensomeness.

Thus, the ability to weather the Covid storm – not just physically but also mentally – probably has quite a lot to do with generous government support. Massachusetts is the outlier here, but all of the other countries listed put in place special wage subsidies and welfare payments. Japan’s stimulus package totaled USD $1.1 trillion, equivalent to 22 percent of Japan’s GDP. Perhaps this is a clue on how suicide might be reduced in the good times, not just the bad.