The Pandemic Suicide Crisis Is Unsupported by the Data

The FAIR Health study did show a modest year-over-year increase—of less than 10 percent—in overall mental-health insurance claims for teenagers from March to November 2020. That’s worth taking seriously, but the stats did not skyrocket.

In a column earlier this month, the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler, who writes the paper’s Fact Checker feature, dug into Biden’s claim that “suicides are up.” (He also referenced his own newspaper’s coverage of an apparent suicide crisis.) “Politicians should be wary about citing preliminary or partial data and declaring that it is a fact,” he concluded. It’s possible that suicides were up last year, he wrote, in part because some deaths from drug overdoses may have been suicides in disguise, but we can’t know for sure, because some of the numbers are still being tabulated.

It’s true that suicide tallies from around the country trickle in over months, and we don’t yet have a complete picture from last year. What we do know at this point, however, doesn’t suggest a new dimension of calamity. According to Tyler Black, a suicidologist and the medical director of emergency psychiatry at British Columbia Children’s Hospital, 2020 was, for all its many horrors, likely just an average year when it comes to suicide in both children and adults. “There was no wave from March to August—like, none—and we’re quite certain about that,” he told me. In fact, the preliminary data from the CDC show that deaths by suicide dropped by 5.6 percent in 2020 from the year before, reaching their lowest total since 2015.  

Other recent research seems to bear this out: A new paper in The Lancet Psychiatry found that in 21 countries, “suicide numbers … remained largely unchanged or declined in the early months of the pandemic,” while an analysis of national mortality data for the U.S. concluded that suicide numbers went down during the first five months of the pandemic. Jeremy Faust, an author of both of those papers and a doctor in the emergency-medicine department at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, in Boston, says he’s noticed that any news of a drop in suicides, however welcome it might seem, leads to pushback. “There’s this knee-jerk reaction to say, ‘Ah, well, that doesn’t mean that everyone’s fine,’” Faust told me. Of course the pandemic has led to mental-health fallout, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that deaths by suicide went up.

As for whether a spike in suicides might be hidden in other categories, such as drug overdoses, Faust calls that idea “extremely unlikely.” Deaths by suicide or overdose undergo medical investigation, and while some misclassification is inevitable, those determinations are considered largely reliable. Black noted, likewise, that the CDC’s final mortality numbers don’t usually differ by more than a percentage point or two from its preliminary numbers, so the suicide total from 2020 will “almost certainly be a decrease when all is said and done.”

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