In December 2019, a virus was detected in Southern China that unleashed a series of events and created a world that none of us have ever seen before. Within a matter of weeks, streets were left deserted and workplaces shuttered as people isolated themselves in their homes. Governments were forced to impose lockdowns to contain the virus spread which caused an unprecedented disruption of supply-chains and industries at a global scale. Unemployment rates spiked across the world, and continue to do so. Almost nine months into the pandemic, most of us are passive spectators, watching it unfold and waiting to see what the world will look like once it has run its course.
The future is always uncertain and we are all trying to adapt to a ‘new normal’. However, there is a lot that our past can teach us to be better prepared for what’s to come. For many decades, we have known there are strong associations between economic recessions and suicide rates. From the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Asian Economic Crisis of 1997-1998, to the economic downturn of 2008; each period has witnessed a surge in suicide incidents, particularly amongst men and young adults.
In a 2013 study conducted by Shu-Sen Chang and colleagues, they found that suicide rates in 54 countries were significantly correlated with levels of unemployment during the 2008 economic crisis. For those who lived through it, we remember them as difficult times. During the same year, the United States experienced the worst loss of jobs in six decades with unemployment rates rising to 7.2%. At its peak, approximately 600,000 people were filing for unemployment every week.
Today, the United States has recorded the highest number of Coronavirus cases in the world. With the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic, the loss of jobs the country has seen is far more severe than before. By July 2020, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 10.2% of adult Americans were unemployed. In India, recording the third highest number of Coronavirus cases, the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy reported unemployment rates spiking to 23.5% in April and May 2020. As of August 2020, India witnessed over 18.9 million salaried jobs lost since the lockdown began in the country.
These are staggering statistics. And the impact on families and lives across the world will be profound. Unlike before, the potential impact will not be limited to adults. Individuals across all ages and walks of life are going through this pandemic, and we are all in its blast radius.
COVID-19 appears to have created a ‘Perfect Storm’. Lockdowns and the resulting economic slump can trigger feelings of stress, hopelessness and helplessness in people. At the same time, we are witnessing a groundbreaking level of social isolation to contain the virus spread. Social alienation and a sense that the problems we are all facing are unendurable and unsolvable are all strong predictors of suicidal thoughts and tendencies. COVID-19 has created a miasmal fog of stress, uncertainty, hopelessness, and social isolation. Should this persist, the history is strong. Left unchecked, we could witness an increase in suicide rates over the next several months. This is unsettling, to say the least.
Can something be done?
Governments, around the world, need to first acknowledge this possible aftermath and create an actionable plan that we can all rally behind. Increasing the availability of unemployment insurance and interventions to limit lay-offs and furloughs can have a positive effect, if done well. We can also work to limit access to lethal means (guns, poison, etc.), control sales of narcotic medications, and restrict access to high risk locations (such as bridges or train tracks) as much as possible without causing disruptions.
Government action, however, can be slow. Perhaps the most important preventative steps begin at home. Family and community efforts to provide support to individuals who have struggled in coping with the challenges of these times has never been more essential.
The world is more connected than it has ever been before. Reach out to friends and neighbours who have lost their job or who are living alone. Be on-guard and for signs of depression or thoughts of suicide in people that are close to you. Listen to them, offer support, and take them seriously. Don’t dismiss these as passing thoughts or feelings. Encourage them to seek out and accept help.
With teenagers, work to maintain a stable, supportive, and secure home environment. Encourage them to give a voice to their feelings and concerns. If they express thoughts of death or suicide, take them seriously and offer support. Although no single approach has been found to prevent suicide, a combination of efforts can be very effective.
Suicide can be prevented.
The next wave of the Coronavirus tsunami – suicide - is approaching, but the outcome is not inevitable. There are actionable steps we can take, individually, in our communities, as a nation, and as a global population, to help those most at risk. The outcome depends on the actions we take now. We should all prepare.