COVID-19 and Suicide

It is reasonable to expect the current pandemic will lead to increased suicide risk

News of suicides linked to COVID-19 are emerging as the pandemic continues unabated.

Italy:

A nurse who worked in an intensive care unit at the epicentre of the Italian coronavirus outbreak took her own life after contracting the disease.

Daniela Trezzi, 34, feared she had spread the virus on to others while working in the San Gerardo Hospital in the city of Monza, which is in the severely affected Lombardy region.

Trezzi was suffering from a lot of stress and was deeply traumatised by the horrors experienced on the frontline. Her state reportedly worsened when she was diagnosed with COVID-19 on March 10th.

Germany:

A German state finance minister took his own life after expressing “despair” over how to handle the economic fallout from coronavirus.

Thomas Schaefer, who was the finance minister of Germany’s Hesse region, was found dead by suicide on railway tracks at Hochheim, which is near Frankfurt.

State governor Volker Bouffier said Sunday that the 54-year-old had become consumed with how to handle the coronavirus crisis sending the global markets into freefall.

He said Schaefer was particularly concerned about ‘whether it would be possible to succeed in fulfilling the population’s huge expectations for financial aid.’

India:

K. Balakrishna, a 50-year-old Indian father-of-three, was one of the first suicide victims linked to the coronavirus pandemic. He kept watching coronavirus-related videos and became convinced he had the virus and would infect his family. Panic is suspected of precipitating his death.

Dr. Adriana Panayi says,

“Panic can demoralise us, it can paralyse us with paranoia and fear, and these emotions in turn lead to hopelessness and desperation.”                                       

Dr. Adriana Panayi

The outbreak of the coronavirus COVID-19 has impacted people in varying ways on an international scale. It is understandable that during times like this, people may be feeling afraid, worried, anxious, and overwhelmed by the constantly changing alerts and media coverage regarding the spread of the virus.

There are many factors that contribute to suicide risk. Global attempts to contain the spread of COVID-19 have elevated some of these factors.

Isolation:

Public health officials have insisted on social distancing – avoiding large gatherings and close contact with others – as a way of slowing the spread of the virus and preventing our health care system from getting overwhelmed.

But such a policy has inherent risk.

Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, a Professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, says

“Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need—crucial to both wellbeing and survival.”

Julianne Holt-Lunstad

People of all ages are susceptible to the ill effects of social isolation and loneliness.

Limiting access to normal daily activities, not just going to work, but normal social interactions with others provokes mental health issues and weakens physical health for those who already struggle to maintain good health and wellbeing.

Behavioural scientist, Chris Segrin, says

“There is enormous individual variation in people’s ability to handle social isolation and stress.”

He adds,

“Someone who is already having problems with, say, social anxiety, depression, loneliness, substance abuse, or other health problems is going to be particularly vulnerable.”

Norine VanderHooven, a licensed clinical social worker in California, acknowledges the impact of prolonged isolation on anxiety levels. She says,

“People are becoming so anxious because they do not know what to expect. Anxiety is fear of the unexpected or unknown.”

Norine VanderHooven

This is true of the elderly. The weakening of social networks disrupts normal social lives. Living with the unfamiliar can be unsettling, undermining a sense of belonging.

Eric D. Perakslis, PhD. adopts a measured approach, putting a positive spin on the sacrifices being called for. He argues that social distancing is not only essential but should be seen as an act of love. It is not only about protecting people we know, but also people we do not know or even, possibly, care about. He says,

“If we care about people, we must act out of an abundance of caution and take the social distancing recommendations as seriously as life or death—because they are.”

Perakslis maintains technology allows us to bridge the gap created by social distancing. He says,

“In our connected world, we can be digitally present anywhere and anytime.  Social distancing does not mean we must be socially isolated. Use these tools but stay physically away.”

Eric D. Perakslis

Unemployment:

The Coronavirus crisis has seen thousands of Australians plunged into immediate unemployment.

On March 23 alone, over 90,000 people found themselves registering for unemployment benefits either in person, online, or on the phone.

Analysts are suggesting more than 2 million Australians could be out of work, with unemployment expected to soar as businesses begin shutting their doors and standing down or sacking workers. Should these levels be realised, it would be the highest jobless rate since 1932.

Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe is putting the unemployment rate at 10% by June. This equates to a 20% reduction in the hours worked.

The practical challenges of applying for income support can be overwhelming. Vulnerable people may end up considering themselves ‘undeserving’ of assistance, damaging their sense of self-worth and their emotional wellbeing.

ANZ senior economist Catherine Birch forecasts a rapid rise in unemployment and the associated health issues. She says,

“Periods of higher unemployment are associated with a deterioration in mental health and a higher suicide rate.”

Economic Fallout:

Since the COVID-19 crisis, businesses have faced adversity, resulting in employees being stood down. Schools have been closed for indeterminable periods, forcing some parents and guardians to take time off work. The stock market has experienced historic drops, resulting in significant changes to retirement funds. The economic disruption is severe, and the ripple effect is huge.

There are fears that the combination of cancelled public events, closed businesses, and stay-at-home strategies will lead to a recession. And there is no suggestion that our economic woes will be over any time soon.

Business analysts are saying Australia’s economy could take almost a decade to recover from the coronavirus fallout.

Researchers note that economic downturns are usually associated with higher suicide rates compared with periods of relative prosperity.

Taking Care of One Another:

Eric Caine is the co-director of the Center for the Study of Prevention of Suicide at the University of Rochester Medical Center. He says,

“In a moment like this, people can mitigate risk to vulnerable populations by doing their best to care for one another. The crisis is a collective one, not an individual one. No one should have to endure it alone.”

Eric Caine

For older adults living alone it is about providing practical support – helping with the grocery shopping, picking up prescriptions from the chemist, ensuring they can maintain contact with family and friends. Texting, email, and apps like Skype, FaceTime and Zoom are some of the ways to stay in touch.

For people with mental health issues it is about providing reassurance – helping them work through the changes to the way they live, work and communicate; providing them with accurate information about the virus to avoid any increase in anxiety, stress, or worry; encouraging them to remain positive and to access support when needed.

For young people who have had their education disrupted it is about providing perspective – helping them realise that life doesn’t always go to plan;  that governments are sympathetic to the challenges they face; that schools are able to develop alternate ways to deliver curricula including scaling up their online learning capabilities; that working parents will assist with the transition to home based learning.

Although our experience of COVID-19 may be different and the challenges we face unique, let us derive strength from the words of our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison,

‘Stay Together, Australia’

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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