Investigators observed little change in suicide rates occurring around the world in the early months of COVID-19 compared to before the pandemic, according to data collected from 16 high-income and 5 upper-middle-income countries.
Investigators found no increase in suicide rates in the early months of the pandemic for any country included. In fact, evidence in the data showed a decrease in suicide in 12 areas, compared to the expected numbers from previous years trends.
The study did not include low or lower-middle income countries that account for 46% of the world’s suicides.
The team international team of investigators noted the belief there are concerning signs of the pandemic’s adverse effects on suicide rates in these countries. However, the lack of quality death registration systems or real-time suicide data makes it difficult to verify that hypothesis.
The investigators were led by Professor Jane Pirkis, Director of the Centre for Mental Health at the University of Melbourne. The study included 70 authors from 30 countries who belong to the International COVID-19 Suicide Prevention Research Collaboration (ICSPRC).
In the new study, monthly suicides were compared using data from at least January 2019 through March 2020, with some data sets beginning from January 2016.
Numbers between April and July 2020 were then compared to trends from the past to determine the increase or decrease in suicide trend during the COVID-19 pandemic. Investigators did not include other demographic information, including age, sex or ethnicity.
The effect of public health measures to control the pandemic were not explored in the data set, but investigators believe this and economic support packages may have affected suicide rate decline.
“We need to continue to monitor the data and be alert to any increases in suicide, particularly as the pandemic’s full economic consequences emerge,” Pirkis wrote.
Investigators stated suicide rates may have declined as mental health services and economic measures adapted to lessen the impact of lockdowns on mental health and financial difficulty.
The team also looked to community support and strengthened household relationships as a collective protection against suicide, as well as a reduction in stress.
“Many countries in our study put in place additional mental health supports and financial safety nets, both of which might have buffered any early adverse effects of the pandemic,” Pirkis and colleagues wrote.
In a comment accompanying the study, Dr. Stella Botchway and Professor Seena Fazel of the University of Oxford stated that the results are reassuring, but the data will need to follow-up, as the pandemic may affect at-risk groups well beyond its end.
“Pirkis and colleagues’ results are reassuring in that there has not been an initial clear increase in suicide deaths but will need to be followed up across a wider set of countries over the next few years to investigate whether suicide will be one of the health-related aftershocks of the pandemic,” they wrote.
The study, “Suicide trends in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic: an interrupted time-series analysis of preliminary data from 21 countries,” was published online in The Lancet Psychiatry.