The number of suicides did not increase in the early months of the Covid pandemic, at least in wealthy countries, researchers have found.
This month the Royal College of Psychiatrists warned the NHS was struggling to cope with demand for mental health support, noting that record numbers of children and adults in England had sought help last year.
But a study focusing on the early months of the pandemic has found no signs of an increase in the risk of suicide at that time, at least in high- and upper-middle-income countries.
“In fact [there is] some indication that the opposite may have occurred, certainly in several countries,” Prof Keith Hawton, the director of the Centre for Suicide Research at the University of Oxford and a co-author of the study, told the Guardian.
Writing in the the Lancet Psychiatry journal, an international team of researchers including Hawton report how they analysed data relating to deaths by suicide across 21 countries or regions, including Japan, a number of states in the US, and part of England.
The team created a model for trends in monthly suicides based on data covering January 2019 to the end of March 2020. They then compared the model’s predictions with the monthly recorded suicides between 1 April and 31 July 2020.
The results reveal no sign of an increase in the rate of suicide in any of the countries or areas, with an apparent decrease found in 12 of the 21 studied, including a 6% drop for South Korea compared with expected figures.
While Hawton said it was unclear what was driving the findings, there were a number of possible explanations, including that people pull together at times of crisis.
“One of the arguments has been about lockdown: whilst it obviously created quite a lot of mental health problems, in some ways – particularly for families – it could have provided some protection because people were together and hence more able to support each other,” he said, adding that while missing school was bad for most children, it may have been positive for those who had difficulties coping, for example because of bullying.
The team also suggested financial support from governments, as well as boosting and innovating mental health services, might have offered protection. However, the authors cautioned that the study was not able to analyse the results according to age, sex or ethnicity, and advised further monitoring.
Hawton said there could be a rise in suicides as the economic consequences of the pandemic become clearer, noting an increase in cases, particularly among men, in some countries after the 2008 recession.
Elizabeth Scowcroft, the head of research and evaluation at the charity Samaritans, who was not involved in the study, said a reversal of the overall increase in the suicide rate in recent years required bold action.
“We are concerned about the long-term impact of the coronavirus pandemic, particularly as the links between recessions, unemployment and suicide risk are well known. Therefore, the government must continue to put suicide prevention at the heart of its wider pandemic recovery plans.”