Mental Health, Suicide Risk, and COVID-19
By Jane G. Tillman, PhD
The COVID-19 pandemic is producing unprecedented upheaval in our lives. First there’s the public health crisis, the virus itself, and the losses we were experiencing related to that. And there’s also an economic disaster unfolding. Both of these have serious consequences for mental health.
As a researcher and a clinician interested in understanding the risk and protective factors for suicide, I've been very interested in keeping up on the literature of what we know about these sorts of upheavals and societal life and their relation to risk of suicide.
Researchers have known for years that loss of employment and financial stressors are often associated with increased risk for suicide. So is social isolation and in this time of physical distancing, we're certainly experiencing more of that.
There are also reports of increasing domestic violence and people who feel they are trapped in a desperate situation often look for a means of escaping that situation and some of them consider suicide in this moment.
There are also reports of problematic substance abuse on the rise and certainly most concerning to me is the access to lethal means, which we know is a risk factor for suicide.
Recent reports reveal that in March of 2020 firearm sales in the United States increased by 85% over the firearm sales of the same time last year. Researchers also know that the presence of a firearm in the home is associated with a between two- and ten-times greater risk for suicide in that home than in homes were there are no firearms present. So, this is something we must pay attention to.
But I'm also interested in protective factors. What can we do to mitigate suicide risk? One thing is we can try to maintain our positive social connections. Another is to limit problematic substance use. If you have a firearm in the home, please store it safely. Consider finding a place to lock the firearm up or, if you're in a mental health crisis, to temporarily give it to someone else for off-site storage.
And finally, seek mental health assistance if needed. We have some resources on this website – www.austenriggs.org/covid-19-mental-health-resources – to help you do that. Suicide is preventable and we can help by noticing those in our families and in our neighborhoods and in our social networks who might be experiencing a mental health crisis – telling them that we are there to listen and offering to help them seek assistance.