U.S. suicides fell last year, defying pandemic expectations

NEW YORK: The number of American suicides fell by almost 6 percent last year in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic – the biggest annual decline in at least four decades, according to preliminary government data.
Death certificates are still arriving and the number could rise. But officials expect a significant drop to continue, despite concerns that the Covid-19 could lead to new suicides.
It’s hard to say exactly why suicide mortality has dropped so much, but one factor may be a phenomenon seen in the early stages of wars and national disasters, some experts suggest.
“In every period of catastrophe, there is a phase of heroism, when we unite and express a lot of messages of support that we are in it together,” said Dr. Christine Moutier, chief medical officer of the American Suicide Prevention Foundation. “You saw it, at least in the first months of the pandemic.”
Increasing the availability of telehealth services and other efforts to reverse the national suicide problem could also have contributed, she said.
U.S. suicides rose steadily from the early 2000s to 2018, when the national suicide rate reached its highest level since 1941. The rate finally fell slightly in 2019. Experts attribute increased mental health reviews and other suicide prevention efforts.
The number dropped further last year, to below 45,000, disease control and prevention centers said in a recent report. That is the lowest number of American suicide deaths since 2015.
Many worried that such progress could be completed when COVID-19 arrived.
The pandemic has triggered a wave of business closures. Millions of people were forced to stay at home, many of them alone. In the polls, several Americans reported depression, anxiety and drug and alcohol use. Adding to that dangerous mix, gun purchases rose 85 percent in March 2020.
But the spring of last year actually saw the most dramatic drop in suicides of the year, said Farida Ahmad of the CDC, lead author of a recent report in the Journal of the American Medical Association detailing the decline.
Suicide was the tenth leading cause of death in the country, but fell to 11th place in 2020. This was largely due to the arrival of COVID-19, which killed at least 345,000 Americans and became the No. 1 killer. But the drop in suicides also contributed to the drop in rankings.
The CDC has not yet reported a national suicide rate for 2020, nor has it provided a breakdown of suicides by country, age or race, and ethnicity.
Moutier is eager to see more data. For example, although total suicides declined last year, it is possible that suicides among young people and young adults did not, she said.
She is optimistic that the recent downturns will mark the beginning of a lasting trend. But she also worries that many people could have a delayed effect on mental health as they overcome the initial threats of a pandemic but sink in grief to people and things they have lost.