Suicides in Colorado dropped 40% during first 2 months of coronavirus pandemic — but calls to crisis line spiked
By: Jessica Seaman
Colorado recorded a 40% decrease in suicides in March and April as social-distancing policies aimed at slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus kept residents home, according to provisional death-certificate data from the state health department.
The data helps paint a complex picture of the mental and emotional toll of the COVID-19 pandemic. While suicides are down from 2019 levels, Colorado Crisis Services saw an almost 48% increase calls in March and April compared to last year, with most callers seeking help for anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation.
And experts are concerned that the fear and uncertainty brought on by the pandemic and subsequent economic collapse will exacerbate an already existing public health crisis by leading to an increase in suicides and mental health issues nationally in the coming months.
“People’s lives have been disrupted in a severe way,” said Tony Wood, chair of the board at the American Association of Suicidology. “Many people have lost their jobs. There’s no clear way forward for a lot of people.”
“We don’t think that we can possibly support them as a nation,” he added. “But we’re definitely raising a signal for a call to action.”
Suicides have steadily increased in recent years, rising from 1,175 deaths in 2017 to 1,287 deaths in 2019, according to death certificate data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
But so far, suicides are down this year, most notably in March and April, when there were 139 such deaths, compared to the 233 deaths during the same months in 2019, according to the data.
As such, there is no sign yet that suicides are contributing to the 20% increase in overall deaths Colorado is experiencing either directly or indirectly because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The potential for an increase in suicides has been cited by individuals, including President Donald Trump, as an argument for ending severe social-distancing policies. Trump has claimed that there will be a jump in suicides if the U.S. economy is not reopened.
However, mental health experts say that while the crisis is amplifying risk factors for suicide, the coronavirus outbreak’s affect on individuals’ mental and emotional well-being is complex. Suicide is multifaceted, and while economic loss is risk factor, so are depression, isolation and fear of the future.
In fact, experts said, it’s possible that the crisis is creating a sense of belonging for individuals at risk for suicide as stress and anxiety are normalized and people come together to better support one another during a crisis.
“That may put things in a different kind of perspective for people who might be vulnerable to suicide,” said Vincent Atchity, chief executive officer of Mental Health Colorado. “That could end up having a preventive effect on suicide rates.”
Another potential reason suicides have decreased could come from the fact that what many people are experiencing is similar to what happens in the first few weeks following the death of a loved one, said Steve Fisher, director of outpatient expansion and special projects at the Mental Health Center of Denver.
Right now, he said, people are focusing on the logistics of surviving each day, such as how to buy groceries safely. But as Americans settle more into the so-called “new normal,” the adrenaline will drop away and their bodies will start to allow them to access more of the emotional pain they are experiencing.
“Part of them are shutting down their body, and their psyche shuts down their emotions,” he said. “Then you start to see that emotional release.”
Most people with suicidal ideation do not harm themselves, and it is difficult to predict who will act on those thoughts.
And many people will be able to work through the emotional and mental distress that will come from the outbreak. Others will face more difficulty and struggle with excessive substance use or suicidal ideation. They could also lash out at others, which is partly why there is expected to be an increase in domestic violence, Fisher said.
While suicide rates are down, experts, caution that individuals are still experiencing mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety.
Colorado Crisis Services fielded 39,770 calls and text messages from people seeking help in March and April, up from the 26,928 calls and text messages during the same months last year.
Wood, from the American Association of Suicidology, said he expects a serious mental health crisis in the coming months, and is concerned the health care system is not prepared for the influx of patients, in part because there are not enough mental health clinicians.
“We don’t have enough capacity to care for a large number of people who have suicide ideation and behavior in the best way possible,” he said.
Social distancing measures have pushed many therapy sessions to tele-health methods, such as via phone. But some people need residential treatment or other in-person help.
For example, Colorado Crisis Services has experienced a drop in the number of times it deploys a mobile crisis unit to someone’s home.
It’s unclear if the decrease is because people are afraid of having others at their home right now or another reason, said Camille Harding, division director for community behavioral health at the state Department of Human Services.
“Some people are not getting their mental health needs met right now, partly because of fear,” said Travis Atkinson, a crisis systems consultant with TBD Solutions.