Suicide is never a comfortable topic. When I wrote about it recently for Jefferson Public Radio, my editors were worried: Would highlighting the fact that suicide has been on the rise nationwide, help people or hurt them? Does talking about suicide encourage more people to try to take their own lives?
Talking about COVID-19 and suicide is even harder
We’re in the midst of a global pandemic. As many as 22,000 people may have already died in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut from coronavirus. Much of the world remains in lockdown. But as fears of COVID-19 continue, our country is facing another threat: isolating people, especially young people, may be causing more suicides and suicide attempts.
- There were 8 suicides in Knoxville, Tennessee within 48 hours. Officials have linked suicide and COVID-19. Many believe that the desperation and despair people are feeling in lockdown may have driven them to die by suicide.
“That number is completely shocking and makes me wonder if what we are doing now is really the best approach,” Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs said in an interview with WVLT 8. “We have to determine how we can respond to COVID-19 in a way that keeps our economy intact, keeps people employed and empowers them with a feeling of hope and optimism – not desperation and despair.”
- After the Air Force kept college seniors isolated on campus, two senior cadets, slated to graduate this year, both died by suicide within just a few days of each other. It seems forcing young people to spend most of their time alone, separated from their friends and support people, staying in single rooms can drive them to suicide.
- A 15-year-old California teen, Jo’Vianni Smith, who excelled at softball, basketball and music, hanged herself in her room. Her mom is trying to help other families by sharing that her daughter’s suicide was caused by the panic so many are feeling because of the fear of catching COVID-19.
Suicide and COVID-19
A 66-year-old man with throat cancer who tested positive for COVID-19 hanged himself in his hospital room. A man in Italy who thought his girlfriend infected him with coronavirus murdered her and then tried to slash his own wrists so he could die too (instead he has been arrested). The bodies of a man and a woman, both in their 50s, were found in Suburban Chicago after an apparent murder-suicide. The couples’ relatives told investigators that Patrick Jesernik, 54, was terrified about coronavirus.
Even without coronavirus and a near global shutdown, suicide is a global problem. Close to 800,000 people die by suicide each year, according to the World Health Organization. For every person who dies, an estimated 20 people attempt to die.
Even more tragically, WHO data indicates that suicide is now the second leading cause of death among young people ages 15 to 29.
We humans are social creatures. We suffer when we’re socially isolated.
My cousin died by suicide when she was in her early 30s. My dear friend’s only child hanged himself in his dorm room last year. My husband’s best friend also committed suicide. Alone in his apartment, Mike shot himself in the head.
These are trying times. Everyone is doing their best. Even the most vibrant, resilient, and optimistic among us are fighting off depression. We still don’t know how many people have this virus, what the transmission rates actually are, or how contagious the coronavirus really is. We don’t even know the best ways to treat it, as the doctor in the video below explains.
It’s very hard to make good public health decisions in the absence of good data and the data is still being collected.
But what we do know is that we have to look out for one another. What will do more harm, the virus or the fear of the virus? The virus or the economic devastation, loneliness, and suicides that come from this fear? We don’t want the “cure” to be worse than the disease. As difficult as it is, we have to talk about suicide and COVID-19. If we talk about suicide openly, we may be able to prevent it.