Experts Concerned About Heightened Suicide Risk During Pandemic

Mar 24, 2020

Extended social isolation. Layoffs. A run on firearms. These are knock-on effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. They are also conditions that suicide experts say demand more preventative action for at-risk Americans.


One of those experts is Dr. J.P. Jameson, a practicing psychologist and professor at Appalachian State University, who studies suicide.

“There is some concern about isolation,” he said. “We know social connectedness is a protective factor against suicide risk, so this presents an extra layer of challenges to mental health providers and to the general public.”

Millions of Americans are staying home and away from others to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Doctors and researchers agree this is a necessary step. But they’re also concerned about what this isolation could do to those already at greater risk for suicide.

Increased demand for firearms in response to the pandemic adds to this worry for professionals.

Firearms are by far the most common means of completing suicide in America, partly because they are so lethal. More than 50 percent of suicides are with a firearm. They also account for 60% of gun deaths in America.

Dr. Jameson has researched the relationship between firearms and suicide. He’s also a gun owner and said it’s vital to have frank conversations about firearms with family members who may be at-risk for self-harm.

“Certainly, when we’re introducing something like a firearm into a situation where we have risk factors for suicide, that’s always cause for concern,” he said.

Cards of encouragement at the Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline in Boise. Experts worry social isolation, anxiety, and a run on firearms could put people at increased risk for suicide.
Credit Heath Druzin / Boise State Public Radio

Less Likely To Seek Help

Compounding that problem, people who are more likely to own guns — older, white men — are more likely to complete suicide. They are also less likely to seek help, according to Dr. Michael Anestis, a professor of psychology at the University of Southern Mississippi.

“The folks who tend to die by suicide using a firearm tend to be parts of groups males, older adults, service members, who will often avoid the mental health care system altogether,” he said. “Or if they use the healthcare system will under-report their thoughts of suicides.”

Anestis stresses that it’s not that guns themselves have a mental health effect on people.

“Most gun owners aren’t suicidal and owning a gun doesn’t make you suicidal,” he said.

But he says there are steps people should take for themselves and their loved ones, if they think they are at-risk, to keep distance between firearms and at-risk people in a vulnerable state.

“That means safe storage of firearms or even better yet, storing them legally and temporarily away from home so that when folks are feeling more isolated, maybe more at-risk and less able to access care, it’s also just harder for them to act on those suicidal thoughts,” he said.

In addition to the increased isolation many Americans are losing their jobs or seeing their businesses shut indefinitely. That means increased financial stress for tens of millions of people. And at the same time services like non-profit suicide prevention hotlines might be needed the most, they are having to send volunteers home temporarily for their safety.

Central Connecticut Arms in Portland, Connecticut, sells a variety of gun safes and cable locks. Roughly 130 million Americans have contact with a gun in their daily lives.
Credit Ryan Lindsay / Connecticut Public

In Boise, Idaho, the state’s Suicide Hotline Director John Reusser said only paid staff are at the call center right now, and only two in the phone room at a time for social distancing.

“It reduces the number of folks we have available to answer calls, especially during the peak times,” he said.

And, while the focus is on getting people the help they need right now, Reusser is concerned about the future. He’s already had to cancel two fundraisers for his organization and he’s not sure when he’ll be able to raise much-needed funds again.

“I would say definitely there’s there’s concern long-term,” he said. “But I really do think that, you know, I’m personally am trying to sort of take this day by day and not try not to worry about the coming months.”

Resources if you or someone you know is considering suicide:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 or suicidepreventionlifeline.org

For Deaf + Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889

en español: 1-888-628-9454

Veterans Crisis Line & Military Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255, Press 1 Crisis Text Line: 741-741

In emergency situations, call 911

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