From the Journals

COVID-19: Experts call for ‘urgent’ global action to prevent suicide


 

A global group of suicide experts is urging governments around the world to take action to prevent a possible jump in suicide rates because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

In a commentary published online April 21 in Lancet Psychiatry, members of the International COVID-19 Suicide Prevention Research Collaboration warned that suicide rates are likely to rise as the pandemic spreads and its ensuing long-term effects on the general population, economy, and vulnerable groups emerge.

“Preventing suicide therefore needs urgent consideration. The response must capitalize on, but extend beyond, general mental health policies and practices,” the experts wrote.

The COVID-19 collaboration was started by David Gunnell, MBChB, PhD, University of Bristol, England, and includes 42 members with suicide expertise from around the world.

“We’re an ad hoc grouping of international suicide prevention researchers, research leaders, and members of larger international suicide prevention organizations. We include specialists in public health, psychiatry, psychology, and other clinical disciplines,” Dr. Gunnell said in an interview.

“Through this comment piece we hope to share our ideas and experiences about best practice, and ask others working in the field of suicide prevention at a regional, national, and international level to share our intervention and surveillance/data collection recommendations with relevant policy makers,” he added.

Lessons from the past

During times of crisis, people with existing mental health disorders may suffer worsening symptoms, whereas others may develop new mental health problems, especially depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the group notes.

There is some evidence that suicide increased in the United States during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 and among older people in Hong Kong during the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak.

An increase in suicide related to COVID-19 is not inevitable provided preventive action is prompt, the group notes.

In their article, the group offered several potential public health responses to mitigate suicide risk associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

These include:

  • Clear care pathways for those who are suicidal.
  • Remote or digital assessments for patients currently under the care of a mental health professional.
  • Staff training to support new ways of working.
  • Increased support for mental health helplines.
  • Providing easily accessible grief counseling for those who have lost a loved one to the virus.
  • Financial safety nets and labor market programs.
  • Dissemination of evidence-based online interventions.

Public health responses must also ensure that those facing domestic violence have access to support and a place to go during times of crisis, they suggested.

“These are unprecedented times. The pandemic will cause distress and leave many vulnerable. Mental health consequences are likely to be present for longer and peak later than the actual pandemic. However, research evidence and the experience of national strategies provide a strong basis for suicide prevention,” the group wrote.

Dr. Gunnell said it’s hard to predict what impact the pandemic will have on suicide rates, “but given the range of concerns, it is important to be prepared and take steps to mitigate risk as much as possible.”

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