New data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that the national suicide rate last year decreased for the first time since 1999.
While the suicide rate for 2019 declined by 2.1% — a total of 833 fewer deaths — from the previous year, experts said this progress could be derailed by the coronavirus pandemic. The effects of COVID-19 on suicide won’t be measurable for some time, but rates are expected to have increased during 2020 as mental health worsened.
“We don’t know why it happened,” said Dan Romer, research director at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and a specialist in media and social influences on adolescent health. “The decrease didn’t happen so much in the Western part of the country, which has the highest rates, and among certain age groups. That’s why we don’t see much reason for optimism.”
Romer said the rise in suicides over the last two decades until 2019 has puzzled researchers. Some believed increased social media use may have affected rates of depression, but study results are mixed. And while the Great Recession had an impact on suicide, especially among young people, suicide rates continued to increase even when the economy rebounded around 2013, bucking the established link between economic hardship and suicide, Romer said.
“It’s very hard to understand these long-term trends,” Romer said. “Overall the economy was doing better, so why are suicide rates going up? It has to be that within certain segments of the population and age groups, people are still not doing well.”
Mary Ann Murtha, director of the Philadelphia area’s American Foundation for Suicide Prevention chapter, said she was encouraged by the slight decline in 2019 but cautioned that no one knows what 2020 is going to look like. She said that for there to be a sustained decrease in the suicide rate, systematic changes are needed.
“It’s important to note that this data came from before the pandemic,” Murtha said. “We don’t have real-time data. We have to have that in order to continue to implement programs across the country, and we need more research for us to assess suicide-prevention approaches properly.”
Romer said most researchers are expecting to see the suicide rate increase again in 2020 because of the pandemic. He said that while many people were able to get through the first part of the pandemic due to stimulus checks and unemployment benefits, those resources ran out during the latter half of the year. Already, calls to crisis hotlines are spiking around the country.
“People become desperate and that’s when we might see the rate go up,” Romer said. “But then again, this pandemic is something that’s happening to everyone, which means right now, there’s more compassion and more support for people experiencing hardship, which can offset some of the problems.”
Addressing suicide effectively will require a multipronged approach, involving advocacy organizations and legislators, Murtha said. She pointed to the successful creation of the 988 hotline, a three-digit number that people can call for mental health emergencies, earlier this year because it had widespread support.
“For years we’ve talked about how it’s the health-care system’s responsibility,” she said. “But it’s a public health issue. It requires everybody to move toward making mental health a priority equal to physical health.”