— President Donald Trump, remarks at a coronavirus briefing, Aug. 5, 2020
It might seem logical — a worldwide pandemic requiring shutdowns, job losses, school closures and the like would result in a spike in suicides.
On three occasions since taking office, President Biden has asserted that suicides have increased since the coronavirus pandemic started. Former president Donald Trump made similar claims — including the frequent statement at campaign rallies that a Biden presidency would lead to even more suicides because Biden appeared more supportive of shutdowns if recommended by medical professionals. “You’re going to have suicides by the thousands,” Trump said of shutdowns in March 2020.
But a new report says that preliminary data indicated that suicides actually fell in 2020. So what happened?
First of all, Biden did not make his statements out of whole cloth. There were news reports indicating an increase in suicides as a result of the pandemic, such as a Washington Post report in November on the fact that surveys indicated a rise in young people reporting having suicidal thoughts. The article noted that suicide rates had increased in the United States every year since 1999, for a gain of 35 percent over two decades.
But in February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the suicide rate actually dropped in 2019. (The Washington Post article relied on data from 2018, the most recent available at the time.) “After increasing from 1999 through 2018, the age-adjusted suicide rate in 2019 (13.9 per 100,000) was significantly lower than the rate in 2018 (14.2),” the CDC said.
On March 31, in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers from the National Center for Health Statistics published preliminary statistics on the leading causes of death in the United States. There were 44,814 suicides reported in 2020, compared with 47,511 in 2019 and 48,344 in 2018. That would be a decrease of more than 5 percent in one year.
That’s encouraging news — but Biden may still turn out to be right.
Carol Graham, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of a recent report, “America’s Crisis of Despair,” said that early reporting from the beginning of 2020, based on first-responder data, had indicated a spike in suicides. But then it dropped sharply later in 2020 for reasons not yet explained.
At the same time, other “deaths of despair” — such as overdoses — rose all year in the first-responder reports. “The most consistent pattern is an almost doubling of calls for overdose (and similar trends for the need for naloxone),” Graham said. “We also see an increase in mental and behavioral reports.”
Some of those overdose calls might actually have been suicide attempts. The finding on suicides “needs to be treated cautiously when benchmarked against a significant increase in overdoses, some of which may result in death and some not,” Graham said.
There is another red flag in the data: The number of people who died of “unintentional injuries” jumped sharply from 173,040 to 192,176. This is a category that includes drug overdoses — and as we noted, it may be hard to determine how many of these may have been on purpose.
“It is a bit of a minefield and I think you are correct that the decline in suicides may be at least partially reversed when the final data is out,” Graham said. That data will not be available until later this year.
Meanwhile, another study published in JAMA this week found that between March 2020 and January 2021, there was a 23 percent increase in excess deaths — deaths above the number that would be expected based on averages from the past five years. Normally, there is not much change year to year. The report attributed all but 28 percent of the excess deaths to covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, but even many of those might be related, such as overdoses or a failure to seek adequate medical care for a non-covid emergency. “Death rates from several non-COVID-19 diseases (eg, heart disease, Alzheimer disease) increased during surges,” the report noted.
The Pinocchio Test
Politicians should be wary about citing preliminary or partial data and declaring that it is a fact. Although Biden might have had some grounds for saying suicides are up during the coronavirus pandemic, such statements are now thrown in doubt.
At the same time, the final figures might tell a different story and even validate his statements. The apparent increase in overdoses and mental health issues certainly indicates the pandemic has taken a serious toll on the American psyche.
If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). You can also text a crisis counselor by messaging the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
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