A new study from a Brigham and Women's Hospital emergency physician finds suicide deaths in Massachusetts did not go up when the state was in virtual lockdown because of the pandemic last spring.
Dr. Jeremy Faust analyzed state data on deaths and found the number of suicides in March, April and May fell in line with the expected range based on recent years' trends. The report was published Thursday in an American Medical Association journal, JAMA Network Open.
"We certainly can say that the lockdown period, or stay-at-home period itself, was not associated with a rise [in suicides]," Faust said. "But we don't yet know ... is there a rise that's come about [more recently] because this crisis has extended for such a long period of time?"
Faust launched the review of suicide data because he was suspicious of claims made by former President Trump and other officials.
"We heard this talking point from leaders ... that people would be dying by suicide in droves during the lockdown ... and that these lockdowns were actually so harmful and killing people, and that we shouldn't be doing them," Faust said. "And I just found that to be inadequate, because we didn't have the data. So I simply wanted to know, is there any truth to that?"
Faust says his experience working in the emergency room didn't coincide with the claims of more suicides, either. He wasn't seeing more people than normal coming in because of suicidal thoughts or attempts — or people who had harmed themselves and then died after arriving at the hospital.
In his research, in addition to comparing the number of suicides to the expected range he had projected based on his analysis of data from 2015 to 2019, Faust compared the stay-at-home period to the same period in 2019. The Massachusetts suicide rate in March-May 2020 was .67 per 100,000 people each month, compared to .80 per 100,000 people each month during the same period the year before, according to Faust's findings.
He also put this year's data up against the average from the last five years. And he ran his analysis with all deaths still under investigation included, since it can take a long time for the state medical examiner to determine a cause of death in some cases.
"Any which way we looked, there was no change [in suicides]," he said. "So that's a really important thing to do, to ask one question in a number of ways to make sure you're not just reporting the one angle that fits any theory you may have."
In the initial months of the pandemic, Faust speculated that perhaps suicides were not increasing because of the "we're all in this together" mentality -- the fact that the whole thing was a massive, shared experience and there was a collective will to practice social distancing to try to keep the spread of the coronavirus in check. Also, he points out, there was a lot of support coming from the government in terms of unemployment insurance and relief payments. And people were finding new ways to connect with friends and family and access mental health care on video platforms.
But, he says, he's concerned that over time, the pandemic's impact on our way of life and financial situations could contribute to an increase in suicides.
"Any economic downturn can be associated with an increase in suicidality and suicide attempts, and suicide completion," Faust explained. "So it's not that the lockdown's caused this, it's that the failure to control the overall pandemic is what could feed into a rise in suicidality."
Faust is continuing on with his research, examining the state's death data for the remainder of 2020.
During the pandemic, the state Department of Public Health has been tracking visits to emergency departments related to suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts. And they back up what Faust says he has seen on the front lines. According to data DPH provided to WBUR, average weekly visits to the emergency department have declined for all causes overall, and specifically for suicide-related thoughts and behaviors.
From January 2019 to March 2020, prior to the state of emergency being declared in Massachusetts, there were, in an average week, 136 emergency department visits due to suicide attempts and 1,125 visits related to suicidal ideation. During the pandemic, from March through December 2020, an average of 127 patients per week went to emergency rooms after suicide attempts and 985 visited ERs for suicidal thoughts.
The CDC recently reported the U.S. suicide rate declined in 2019 for the first time in two decades. The agency won't release data for 2020 until late this year.
Resources: You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and the Samaritans Statewide Hotline (call or text) at 1-877-870-HOPE (4673). Call2Talk can be accessed by calling Massachusetts 211 or 508-532-2255 (or text c2t to 741741).