Oddly during the era of the COVID-19 pandemic, a work by a poet from Ancient Rome named Ovid is a highly acclaimed literary masterpiece called Metamorphoses. Metamorphoses is an epic poem in an extraordinary of almost 12,000 lines that chronicle the history of the world from its inception to the exaltation of Julius Caesar as a god. At one point, the poem takes on the topic of the psychosocial distress associated with a plague. In Metamorphoses, the citizens of a city “hanged themselves to kill the fears of death by death’s own hand.” The work examines suicide in the age of the plague. As a global pandemic now takes root for the first time in more than a hundred years, we are also beginning to see an increase in suicides. Mental health professionals promptly have concluded that there is a clear link between the increase in suicide and issues associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Healthcare Workers at Increased Risk of Suicide

We are already seeing frontline healthcare workers – including emergency room personnel, doctors and nurses more generally, and emergency medical technicians or EMTs – take their lives as a result of their exposure to the trauma they experience on a daily basis. In some parts of the country, work in the healthcare profession is now described as being akin to an active battlefield. The dead and dying are all around and caring, dedicated professionals are finding that there is very little to do in some cases to assist individuals with severe cases of COVID-19. 

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD already is recognized as a growing condition among healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The suicide rate among individuals suffering from PTSD is particularly high.

Unemployment Spike a Major Suicide Risk Factor During COVID-19 Pandemic

The unemployment rate hit approximately 25% during the Great Depression. The unemployment rate during the Great Recession of the late-1980s reached just under 10%. Economists and other analysts predict the unemployment rate in the United States may soar to 20% in April, the highest level since the Great Depression, according to reports in the Los Angeles Times

When the stock market crashed at the start of the Great Depression in 1929, the suicide rate in the United States skyrocketed by 50% to 18.1 self-inflicted deaths per 100,000 people. Before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the suicide rate across the United States was already proportionally higher than it was during the year leading up to the Great Depression. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the suicide rate in the U.S. was 14.8% per every 100,000 people. (The rate was 12.1% before the 1929 stock market crash.)

Realizing that a good many numbers are being thrown at you regarding unemployment and suicide, the takeaway is this:

  • One in three people who die by suicide became unemployed at some juncture prior to their deaths.
  • For every 1% increase in the employment rate, the suicide rate increase by .78%.
  • The possibility exists that the suicide rate may climb from 48,000 nationally before the severe increase in unemployment resulting from the COVID-19 economy shutdown to 54,000.

Concern Over Spike in Gun Sales in Regard to Suicide in the Era of COVID-19

Panic buying was a signature feature of the earlier days of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. A nationwide run on toilet paper was headline news day after day. The reality was that toilet paper was not the only product that saw a sharp uptick in sales. There was a marked increase in firearm sales from coast to coast. 

Mentioning gun sales in this discussion of suicide in the era of COVID-19 and the associated social and related restrictions is not meant to create a simplistic contention that more weapon sales is a sign that suicides will increase. The facts surrounding an interrelationship that does exist is more complex. 

Before diving a bit further into this particular issue, the percentage of households in the United States that own guns has been largely unchanged over the course of the past 30 years. In fact, if anything, there are slightly fewer gun-owning households in the U.S.A. today than there were in 1990. At the present time, approximately 43% of U.S. households own guns.

This piece of data is significant when we look at the very real spike in gun buying since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The reality is that most of the increased gun purchases being discussed at the moment are made by current owners. They can fairly be said to be “adding to their arsenals,” according to Psychology Today.

Glenn Sullivan, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at the prestigious Virginia Military Institute, has closely studied suicide by firearm. The reality is that a person with suicidal ideations rarely will go out and purchase a firearm to take his or her life. (A considerable majority of suicides by firearms involve men.) The fact is that suicide by firearm typically occurs in a situation in which an existing gun owner, or other person with fairly immediate access to this type of weapon, experiences suicidal ideations. In basic terms, suicidal ideations are affirmative thoughts to take one’s own life coupled with a specific plan to accomplish that objective. 

Considering these points, the spike in gun sales is not an immediate indicator that a rise in people taking their lives by using firearms will occur in the aftermath of each of these purchases. Rather, expanded firearm collections in people’s homes increases the availability of these weapons to individuals who might experience suicidal ideations at some juncture during the COVID-19 health crisis. 

COVID-19, Elderly Individuals and Suicide

The suicide rate among elderly Americans increased during the SARS outbreak of 2003. (SARS is another derivation of the coronavirus, a relative of sorts to COVID-19.) Many mental health experts believe that what was experienced in regard to suicide among elderly individuals as a result of the SARS outbreak will be more severe among the elderly population during the COVID-19 crisis. 

Elderly people tend to be more sensitive to isolation and loneliness. They are more apt to survive when they have stronger social support systems. Unlike during the SARS outbreak, a truly significant number of elderly people across the country have lost their support systems. By design, elderly people are being directed to stay in isolation in their homes because they are perceived to be at greater risk for contracting a fatal COVID-19 infection. 

Loss of a Loved One to COVID-19 Complications and Suicide

Finally, we are now also seeing individuals who’ve lost a loved one to COVID-19 complications take their lives. This particularly is proving to be the case when a person dies by suicide after the loss of a spouse, other significant other, or a child to a complication from COVID-19. 

As a consequence, there is a growing number of grief support groups being established to specifically support individuals who’ve lost loved ones to COVID-19.