International research examines suicide numbers during the COVID-19 pandemic

Posted 25th July 2022 in Research news

An update to an international study investigating the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on suicide has found no evidence of greater-than-expected numbers of suicides during the first nine to 15 months of the pandemic.

The study, led by Professor Jane Pirkis from the University of Melbourne, builds on earlier published work involving 21 countries that found no evidence of an increase in suicide in any country or area during the first four months of the pandemic.

Using 59 datasets from 33 countries (25 entire countries and 34 areas within countries, e.g. states), the researchers aimed to determine whether this absence of an increase in suicides had been maintained as the pandemic continued.

Despite media stories forecasting an increase in suicides as a result of the pandemic, the study found no evidence of greater-than-expected numbers of suicides in most countries, or areas-within-countries, in the first nine to 15 months of the pandemic. More commonly, there was evidence of lower-than-expected numbers.

Presenting the findings at the International Association for Suicide Prevention's Asia Pacific Conference in May, Professor Pirkis said, “Although there are some countries and areas-within-countries where the numbers, and numbers for certain age and sex-based groups, are greater than would have been expected had the pandemic not occurred, they remain in the minority.” The patterns of greater-than-expected numbers were not consistent; they were not explained by the countries’ COVID-19 mortality rate, level of economic support, the strictness of COVID-19 lockdown measures, or the presence of a national suicide prevention strategy.

When comparing data for the first nine months of the pandemic to the first 10 to 15 months, Professor Pirkis said, “There are some signals that the patterns may be changing as the pandemic continues, with relatively more instances of greater-than-expected numbers of suicide over 10 to 15 months than nine months... But I would stress that these are still in the minority.”

“Any upward movement in suicides obviously is concerning, wherever it happens. We definitely need to remain alert as the pandemic evolves further, and its mental health and also its economic consequences continue to evolve. We do know that suicides can increase in the face of economic downturn… We know from previous pandemics that impacts might be delayed.”

While it appears that the pandemic has not led to greater-than-expected numbers of suicides in most countries, it is important to recognise the impact and stress that those suicides that have occurred have had on the families and communities affected.

Professor Pirkis called for continued monitoring and gathering of data, as well as information about local contextual factors to inform ongoing suicide prevention efforts as responses to the pandemic change.

The updated research is currently available as a preprint manuscript via The Lancet. It has not yet been peer-reviewed or published.

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