Research study looked at suicide rate during Covid-19

Professor Jason Bantjes of Stellenbosch University.

An international research study tracking the global suicide rates since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic has released its report. This report is published in the latest edition of The Lancet Psychiatry.

Professor Jason Bantjes of the Institute for Life Course Health Research at Stellenbosch University’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences is part the International Covid-19 Suicide Prevention Research Collaboration (ICSPRC) that conducted the research.

“This is the first study to examine suicides across the globe during the Covid-19 pandemic, and SU’s Institute for Life Course Health Research is proud to be part of this network of international world leaders in the field of suicide prevention,” said Professor Bantjes.

The study found no evidence of significant increase in risk of suicide in the first months of the pandemic but advised that continued monitoring is needed.

The study gathered data from high-income and upper-middle-income countries and looked at the number of suicides in 21 of these countries between 1 April and 31 July 2020 and compared the trends with those in the previous one to to four years.

Professor Bantjes said: “The best available data suggests that suicide rates in high-income and upper-middle-income countries have remained largely unchanged and have even declined in some instances. Of course, this does not mean that people are not in psychological distress as a result of Covid-19, but it does highlight the reality that there is not a simple linear relationship between psychological distress and suicide. Psychological distress is only one factor in a complex network of factors that lead to suicide.”

The authors noted in a press statement issued by The Lancet Psychiatry featuring this research, that – while their study provides the best available evidence on the pandemic’s effects on suicide so far – it only provides a snapshot of the first few months of the pandemic and effects on suicide might not necessarily occur immediately.

Lead author, Professor Jane Pirkis, Director of the Centre for Mental Health at the University of Melbourne, Australia, says: “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. Policymakers should recognise the importance of high-quality, timely data to support suicide prevention efforts, and should work to mitigate suicide risk factors associated with COVID-19, such as the heightened levels of stress and financial difficulties that some people may experience because of the pandemic.

“Increasing mental health services and suicide prevention programmes and providing financial safety nets may help to prevent the possible longer-term detrimental effects of the pandemic on suicide.”

The authors noted that their study did not include low or lower-middle-income countries, which account for 46% of the world’s suicides and might have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. They say that there are some concerning signs that the pandemic might be adversely affecting suicide rates in these countries, but that it is difficult to verify as very few of these countries have good quality death registration systems and fewer collect real-time suicide data.

Professor Bantjes said on this issue: “The lack of reliable current suicide data from low- and middle-income countries makes it impossible to know what is happening in many parts of the world. It is too soon to know what impact the pandemic has had on suicide rates in South Africa, but we should not assume suicide rates will necessarily increase until we have seen and properly analysed the data. We need to continue to monitor suicide statistics in South Africa so that we can make informed evidence-based decisions about how to respond a priority.”

Professor Bantjes added: “Suicide can be prevented, and help is available. People who are feeling suicidal should seek professional help, reach out to their social support systems and make use of crises services such as those offered by Life Line and South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG).”

The new study included around 70 authors from 30 countries who are members of the International COVID-19 Suicide Prevention Research Collaboration (ICSPRC), which was created to share knowledge about the impact of the pandemic on suicide and suicidal behaviour, and advise on ways to mitigate any risks.

The ICSPRC is an international network of suicide prevention experts collaborating to understand the impact of the pandemic on suicide rates globally.

•If you or a loved one need help and need to speak to a counsellor call SADAG on 0800 567 567 or SMS to 31393.

•For those outside the USA and UK, Befrienders Worldwide also provide support: http://www.befrienders.org/