Researchers call on Governments to give ‘urgent consideration’ to coronavirus suicide risk

More than 40 experts from across the world have called on governments to give “urgent consideration” on how to prevent suicide amid the coronavirus pandemic.

There is a growing concern about the far-reaching impact that may be caused to people’s mental health by the pandemic, with consequences “likely to be present for longer and peak later” than the actual outbreak.

A group of 42 researchers from around the world have formed the International Covid-19 Suicide Prevention Research Collaboration.

In a piece in The Lancet Psychiatry, the experts say there are suggestions that suicide rates will rise but this is “not inevitable”.

“Suicide is likely to become a more pressing concern as the pandemic spreads and has longer-term effects on the general population, the economy, and vulnerable groups,” they write.

“Preventing suicide therefore needs urgent consideration. The response must capitalise on, but extend beyond, general mental health policies and practices.”

There is some evidence that suicides increased in the US during the 1918 flu pandemic, and among older people in Hong Kong during the Sars epidemic in the early 2000s.

The researchers say the likely adverse effects of coronavirus “might be exacerbated by fear, self-isolation and social distancing”.

Suicide risk may also be increased because of stigma towards people who have Covid-19, and their families.

“Those with psychiatric disorders might experience worsening symptoms and others might develop new mental health problems, especially depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress,” the group writes.

“These mental health problems will be experienced by the general population and those with high levels of exposure to illness caused by Covid-19, such as frontline healthcare workers and those who develop the illness.”

Mental health services should develop clear remote assessment and care pathways, while staff should be trained to support new ways of working, they say.

Helplines should be supported to maintain or increase volunteers, while digital training resources should be given to those who have not previously worked with suicidal people.

Evidence-based online interventions should also be made available, the researchers write.

Governments should provide financial safety nets, such as food, housing and unemployment support to reduce the impact of loss of employment and financial pressure.

They should also consider a person’s current situation but also their future – with the researchers highlighting how young people have had their education interrupted and are “anxious about their prospects”.

Universities, colleges and school must seek alternative ways to deliver education and governments should be prepared to offer them financial support, they say.

“Social isolation, entrapment, and loneliness contribute to suicide risk and are likely to increase during the pandemic, particularly for bereaved individuals,” the researchers write.

“Providing community support for those living alone and encouraging families and friends to check in is helpful.”

The researcher describe easily accessible help for those who have lost loved ones as “crucial”.

Other concerns include the social effects of banning religious gatherings and funerals, violence and vulnerable migrant workers.

The researchers conclude: “These are unprecedented times. The pandemic will cause distress and leave many people vulnerable to mental health problems and suicidal behaviour.

“However, research evidence and the experience of national strategies provide a strong basis for suicide prevention.”

One of the authors, Professor David Gunnell from the University of Bristol, said: “It is hard to predict what impact the pandemic will have on suicide rates, but given the range of concerns, it is important to be prepared and take steps to mitigate risk as far as possible.”

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