The global pandemic is putting a strain on Americans’ mental health. There’s been a surge of calls to crisis lines in the past two months. Add a spike in gun sales to that , and experts say we may be at risk of a suicide epidemic.
Tiny Montpelier, Idaho, may already be taking the brunt of pandemic fallout. In that town of just 2,500 and the surrounding Bear Lake Valley — a picturesque, remote corner of the state known for its namesake turquoise lake — there were five suicides in a three-week span of April. Another two deaths are being investigated.
“With it to happen within one month, I mean, that’s definitely unheard of,” Bear Lake County Coroner Chad Walker said.
Indeed, Bear Lake County saw just five suicides total between 2015 and 2018, the latest year for which statistics are available.
In April, the youngest victim was just 15 years old; the oldest was 55. It’s hit particularly hard in a community where, as Walker says, you can’t walk into a grocery store without recognizing just about every other shopper.
"It’s almost like a palpable sadness and kind of a depression for everyone, a little bit," Walker said. "But, I mean, it’s definitely brought the community together as well."
To show support for the victims’ families, hundreds of people drove slowly up and down the town’s main street blaring their horns on a Saturday in late April. The town called it "Dragging Main." A video of the event circulated on local Facebook pages with the hashtag #BearLakeStrong.
The coronavirus pandemic hangs over the deaths: Walker knows some of the victims’ families through his work as funeral director, and he said the past month has left him emotionally drained. The town has been hit hard by the pandemic, and Walker said some of the dead had lost their jobs and were struggling financially.
"It kind of wears on you a little bit," he said.
Experts worry tragedies like those in Montpelier might become more common. Americans are facing economic devastation on the scale of the Great Depression. Many are isolated and feeling anxious about their health.
While it’s too early to have hard data about suicide on a national scale, a spokesman for the national Disaster Distress Helpline Line says calls went up between 900 and 1000 percent in March and April. In that same time period, the Crisis Text Line saw a 40 percent increase.
And it’s not just a change in call volume. The nature of the calls is changing.
At the Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline, calls have become increasingly pandemic-specific. Hotline supervisor and clinical lead George Austin says callers’ concerns have reflected the very things affected by the pandemic.
"The isolation aspects of calls are really more prominent," he said. "That conflict within families and within people living in close proximity; those have gone up quite a bit, as well as just general financial concerns."
And there’s another factor that can’t be ignored: guns.
March and April saw two of the biggest year-over-year increases in gun sales ever. Firearms are by far the most common method of suicide in America, accounting for more than half of all suicides in 2018. That meant more than 24,000 suicides in 2018. And the majority of gun deaths are suicides. On top of that, gun owners skew toward groups at higher risk for suicide: older white men.
Dr. Eric Fleegler, a pediatric emergency doctor and researcher at Boston Children’s Hospital, co-authored a paper published in the Annals of Internal Medicine warning of a possible pandemic-related suicide epidemic. He said part of the solution is having health care workers talk honestly with patients about guns in the home.
"It is very important that my colleagues, both the doctors and nurse practitioners and whoever else faces with patients, talk about lethal means restriction and what that means," he said.
Fleeger said laws that mandate safe storage and allow courts to temporarily remove guns from people in crisis can help. Both have broad support from Americans, though opposition from hard-line gun activists.
Fleegler said there’s little time to waste in getting ahead of the problem.
"We know historically, when you look at times of great socioeconomic distress and times of significant increases in unemployment, that these have been associated with anywhere from 25 to 50 percent increases in suicide," he said.
Even before the pandemic, the U.S. suicide rate had been climbing steadily, and guns have consistently been the most common means by far.
In addition to economic woes and isolation, there’s another worrying pandemic factor, according to Brett Bass, a program manager at Forefront Suicide Prevention in Seattle.
"We also have large numbers of people who have purchased firearms for the first time who might or might not have the ability to seek out appropriate training," he said. "I think that’s somewhat worrying."
Bass is also a certified gun range safety officer and instructor, and he’s working on an online training program to reach first-time buyers who lack access to in-person instruction due to social distancing restrictions.
As a gun owner himself, he says one of the most important steps gun owners can take is thinking of themselves as a community and looking out for one another.
"Within my close inner circle of friends, we’ve had an implicit and sometimes explicit understanding that if somebody isn’t doing well, we’re going to hold on to their guns until they’re in a much better state of mind," he said. "I’ve done this for other people in the past and more than one occasion."
Back in Montpelier, Chad Walker said he would welcome more gun safety education. He also says suicide prevention starts at home.
"Know the warning signs for yourself and for your children," he said. "And just be willing to communicate more."
With no end in sight to the pandemic fallout, education and communication might be more important than ever.
Resources if you or someone you know is considering suicide:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 or https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/
Options 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
Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.