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COVID-19 brings a ‘perfect storm’ of suicide risk factors: economic stress, isolation, gun sales

COVID-19 brings a ‘perfect storm’ of suicide risk factors: economic stress, isolation, gun sales
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Researchers are raising alarms about high suicide risks during the pandemic. A new report in JAMA Psychiatry says that COVID-19 has brought with it a “perfect storm” of risk factors: social isolation, low community support, limited treatment access, nationwide anxiety, increased firearm sales, and poor seasonal timing (suicide rates tend to peak in late spring and early summer).

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Suicidal thoughts are widely known to be temporary and treatable with support, therapy, and coping behaviors.

Media outlets are reporting upticks in calls to suicide hotlines, and social distancing may already be having a devastating impact. The report notes that weekly attendance at religious services is associated with a five-fold lower suicide rate and that social connections play a key role in suicide prevention. “Suicidal thoughts and behaviors are associated with social isolation and loneliness,” write the researchers. “Therefore, it is concerning that the most critical public health strategy for the COVID-19 crisis is social distancing.”

Suicide rates also rise during recessions and tend to track with income levels: One study found that a $2 rise in minimum wage would prevent 25,900 suicides per year.

The report expresses strong concern about access to mental healthcare: Visitor bans at medical centers may prevent treatment for those who might have been brought in by a loved one, emergency rooms are now overflowing, many parents are unable to keep therapy appointments with children home, and suicidal people may incorrectly assume that they would not receive treatment due to the overwhelmed healthcare system.

Lastly, gun sales have surged along with COVID-19, and the researchers write that “firearms are the most common method of suicide in the U.S., and firearm ownership and unsafe storage are associated with elevated suicide risk.”

The U.S. suicide rate is currently at its highest point since 1941, after rising for 13 years. The highest rates are in the rural Midwest, in Wyoming, New Mexico, Montana, Idaho, Utah, and Colorado, as well as Alaska. New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island have the lowest rates in the country.

You can help both yourself and others through social connection via telephone or video, or tele-therapy. Last month, Governor Andrew Cuomo opened the New York State COVID-19 Emotional Support Helpline at 844-863-9314 (8 a.m. to 10 p.m. ET). If you are having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK).

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