Will social distancing lead to more suicides?

An editorial in JAMA Psychiatry warns that the Covid-19 crisis could lead to more suicides. The authors decline to quantify their foreboding words, but they point out that this is a very stressful time for many people for a variety of economic, psychosocial, and health-associated risk factors.

For instance, 24/7 news coverage could create anxiety; health difficulties could increase risk for some patients. There has been a surge in gun sales.

But the main factor could be social distancing.

“Leading theories of suicide emphasize the key role that social connections play in suicide prevention. Individuals experiencing suicidal ideation may lack connections to other people and often disconnect from others as suicide risk rises.  Suicidal thoughts and behaviors are associated with social isolation and loneliness.  

“Therefore, from a suicide prevention perspective, it is concerning that the most critical public health strategy for the COVID-19 crisis is social distancing. Furthermore, family and friends remain isolated from individuals who are hospitalized, even when their deaths are imminent. To the extent that these strategies increase social isolation and loneliness, they may increase suicide risk.”

An inability to attend community and religious services because of social distancing regulations could be a risk factor as well. The authors note that: “Weekly attendance at religious services has been associated with a 5-fold lower suicide rate compared with those who do not attend.”

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge


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