The Pandemic, Suicide Rates, and Social Isolation


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Photo by United Nations COVID-19 Response on Unsplash (cropped)

We don’t know if suicide rates in the U.S. have gone up since Covid-19 first spread around the country, but it’s not hard to find reports of people whose suicides seem indelibly linked to the pandemic.

There’s Dr. Lorna Breen, the ER physician in New York City who worked 18-hour days in the height of the pandemic’s first wave last spring, and then contracted the virus herself.

There’s Christian Robbins, a 16-year-old who killed himself a month into the pandemic in Washington, D.C. His father agonizes about the what-if’s: What if they hadn’t cancelled their family vacation? What if schools hadn’t closed? What if the pandemic had never happened?

And there’s Spencer Smith, a high school sophomore in Maine who died in early December. He left a note for his parents saying he felt stuck at home and disconnected from his friends.

Suicide doesn’t have a single cause. There’s usually a confluence of reasons, which can include mental illness, substance addiction, stressful life circumstances, biology, exposure to suicide, and numerous others. So, it would be simplistic to blame suicides on the pandemic alone. But the pandemic certainly isn’t helping.

Are Suicide Rates Increasing during the Pandemic?

Official statistics about suicide in the U.S. won’t come out for a while. Right now, on the cusp of 2021, statistics for 2019 were released only a week ago. (There was good news, too: The suicide rate dropped by 2.1%, the first decrease in 15 years. However, good news is relative. More than 47,000 people died by suicide in 2019.)

Early research findings about suicide during the pandemic are mixed. Some areas, such as the Pacific Northwest and New Mexico, found no increase in the pandemic’s first 6-7 months. However,  a study in Maryland found that the suicide rate almost doubled for Black people in the first few months of the pandemic, relative to the same time period during the prior three years. Paradoxically, the same study found that suicide rates dropped by nearly 50% for white people early in the pandemic.

Whether the pandemic is leading to more suicides or not, it’s creating conditions that increase suicide risk. At least 10 million Americans still have lost their jobs. This has left many millions of people without enough food, resulting in hours-long waits at food banks. Poverty has increased. An “eviction tsunami” is predicted once a national moratorium on evictions ends. It’s worth noting that poverty and unemployment are significant risk factors for suicide, as is homelessness.

The Perils of Social Isolation

Photo by Erik McLean on Unsplash

Perhaps the most dangerous side effect of the pandemic, besides the virus itself, is social isolation. Humans are social animals. We need conversation, touch, laughter, camaraderie. Zoom and phone calls are better than no connection at all, but they can’t nourish us in the same way as a face to face conversation, a hug, a literal pat on the back, a kiss, sex.

Staying at home and physically isolating from others has meant the obliteration of normal daily life. For many people, the new normal means not working at the office or going to school among their peers. If you’re taking care to protect yourself or others, the new normal has meant not going out to restaurants or the gym, not going home for the holidays, not seeing your friends in person.

To me, a United Nations photo captures, no doubt unintentionally, just how deadening isolation can be. A pill bottle encloses a solitary chair. The pill bottle is shut, devoid of fresh air.

Photo by UN Covid-19 Response on Unsplash

The image reminds me of Sylvia Plath’s infamous bell jar of depression. In her autobiographical novel, she compared her feelings of inner deadness to “sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.” (Sylvia Plath killed herself one month after The Bell Jar was published.)

The effects of isolation are so grave that experts worry it’s killing older adults, especially those in nursing homes who can’t receive visitors unless a wall and window separate them. Some nursing homes are taking creative measures to let human contact continue, like the one in Texas using “hugging booths” created by Boy Scouts.

Do You Feel Suicidal During the Pandemic?

Photo by UN Covid-19 Response on Unsplash

Even with the devastating effects of the pandemic, it’s important not to convey that suicide is the solution. It’s not. If you’re feeling despair or thinking of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 (TALK) or use other free resources listed here.  

And please, remember that things are constantly changing. The new vaccines will, as far as we know, get the pandemic under control. 

Remember the UN picture I mentioned of the empty chair inside a pill bottle? There are a couple others, too, and they’re more uplifting. Though they’re not explicitly suicide prevention ads, they certainly could be.

“BETTER DAYS ARE COMING,” one states, again and again.

“This isn’t forever. It’s just right now,” another states.

Photo by UN Covid-19 Response on Unsplash (cropped)

Often, it can sound like a superficial, trite reassurance to say your situation is temporary, when it might be anything but. But at the moment, as far as we know, the pandemic actually is temporary. The end of the pandemic is beginning, now that effective vaccines against Covid are being distributed. 

It’s true: This isn’t forever. It’s just right now.

Who’s to Blame for Isolation in the Pandemic?

As long as I’m bemoaning the toxic effects of isolation, I want to make something clear: This article is a lamentation, not a diatribe.

Many people look to others to blame for the isolation and other hardships wrought by the pandemic. I understand the desire to blame someone, anyone, who can be held accountable more than an invisible pathogen can.

Some people blame policymakers. One mother in Illinois is suing the governor and local school district for this very reason. She states her son Trevor Till killed himself in October because shutting down schools and extracurricular activities deprived him of the connections he needed to stay alive.

“He thrived on being busy… These kids NEED THEIR ACTIVITIES! IT IS WHAT HIGH SCHOOL IS ALL ABOUT….” she wrote in a Facebook post.

Trevor’s death, and others’ like his, are tragedies. At the same time, as harmful as isolation can be, I don’t see a way around it in a deadly pandemic of a novel virus. Even with widespread stay-at-home orders and restrictions on businesses worldwide, 1.8 million people had died of Covid by December 30, 2020. In the U.S., almost 348,000 people died of Covid in 10 months, compared to 328,000 deaths from flu or pneumonia in the previous 6 years.

Imagine how much longer the list of Covid casualties would be if fewer people had stayed home, if schools and businesses had remained open without restrictions, if travel had continued unabated. Millions of people would have died in the early months of the pandemic alone. Such an enormous number of deaths would have created even more grief, isolation, and disruption to the economy than those caused by the preventive shutdowns.

Knowing that it’s necessary to hunker down doesn’t make it any easier. It will still be many months before society fully reopens. This makes it all the more important that you connect with others and manage your stress if you’re waiting until it’s safe to resume your old ways of living.

Surviving Social Isolation

Photo by Edwin Hooper on Unsplash

Though targeted toward older adults, the journal article “Loneliness and Social Isolation during the Covid-19 Pandemic” contains a list of useful suggestions for people of all ages on how to cope with isolation during the pandemic.

  • Use technology to stay connected. No doubt you’ve been doing this for months already. My mother, sisters, and our families have talked via Zoom every Saturday since March. We come from three different time zones; one sister’s in California, I’m in Colorado, and my mother and another sister are in Texas. Our kids (my mom’s grandkids) often join us. Before the pandemic, the last time we were all together was at my father’s funeral, in 2015.
  • Structure every single day. Structure and routine can help fend off chaos, even if your routines all occur at home. It might not lessen your isolation, but it could help you to feel less anxiety.
  • Keep up physical and mental activities. Remember, exercise doesn’t just help your body. It also improves mood and cognition.
  • Get outdoors. After a few months of staying at home, I discovered my vitamin D levels were precariously low. The doctor prescribed pills with 50,000 units of vitamin D. Now, I take 2,000 units a day and make sure I take regular walks during peak periods of sunlight. (Fortunately, I live in Denver, an exceptionally sunny city.)
  • Take care of your emotional health. Get therapy, if needed. (If you can’t afford it, check out this article.) Try out anxiety management tools like meditation and deep breathing. Ask friends and family for help if you need it.
  • Reach out to older adults you know, and their caregivers. For that matter, also reach out to people you know who are parents of young children, health care providers, other essential workers, and anyone else who seems especially vulnerable to the stresses of the pandemic.

Questions for You about the Pandemic and Social Isolation

What have you done to cope with isolation and other stresses of the pandemic over the last year or so?

What has helped you to stay connected to others?

Please let us know your thoughts in the comments.

Want to join the conversation?

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