NEW YORK (AP) – The number of suicides in the United States fell nearly 6% last year amid the coronavirus pandemic – the biggest annual drop in at least four decades, according to preliminary government data .
Death certificates are still coming in and the number could increase. But officials expect a substantial drop to persist, despite fears COVID-19 could lead to more suicides.
It’s hard to say exactly why suicide deaths have dropped so much, but one factor may be a phenomenon seen at the start of wars and national disasters, some experts have suggested.
“There is a phase of heroism in every time of disaster, where we come together and express a lot of the messages of support that we are in this together,” said Dr. Christine Moutier, Chief Medical Officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “You saw this, at least in the early months of the pandemic.”
An increase in the availability of telehealth services and other efforts to address the suicide problem in the country may have also contributed, she said.
Suicides in the United States rose steadily from the early 2000s to 2018, when the national suicide rate hit its highest level since 1941. The rate eventually declined slightly in 2019. Experts have attributed an increase in screenings to mental health and other suicide prevention efforts.
The number fell further last year, to less than 45,000, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a recent report. This was the lowest number of suicide deaths in the United States since 2015.
Many feared that such progress would end with the arrival of COVID-19.
The pandemic has sparked a wave of business closures. Millions of people have been forced to stay at home, most of them alone. In surveys, more Americans have reported depression, anxiety, and drug and alcohol use. On top of this dangerous mix, gun purchases increased 85% in March 2020.
But the spring of last year actually saw the most dramatic drop in the number of suicides of the year, said Farida Ahmad of the CDC, lead author of a recent report in the Journal of the American Medical Association which details this drop.
Suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in the country, but fell to 11th in 2020. This was mainly due to the arrival of COVID-19, which has killed at least 345,000 Americans and became the No. 3 killer of the country. But the drop in suicide deaths also contributed to the drop in the rankings.
The CDC has yet to release national suicide rates for 2020, nor has it provided a breakdown of suicides by state, age or race and ethnicity.
Moutier is eager to see more data. For example, while overall suicides declined last year, it is possible that youth and young adult suicides have not declined, she said.
She is optimistic that the recent declines will mark the start of a lasting trend. But she also fears that there is a delayed effect on the mental health of many as they move past the initial threats of the pandemic but fall into mourning for the people and things they have lost.
“There’s sort of an evolution in mental health distress,” she says. “We may see all the ramifications of this pandemic on mental health” later.
The Associated Press’s Department of Health and Science receives support from the Department of Science Education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
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