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"The Impact of COVID-19 on Mental Health & Suicide Rates" - Erin K. Anderson, Ph.D. | March 2021

Washington College

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When the COVID-19 pandemic forced several countries into lockdowns and quarantines in early 2020, the daily routines and relationships people had were severely modified or halted. The first country to impose such strict limits on people’s movements was China, but many other countries soon followed in an attempt to restrict the spread of the virus. As stay-at-home orders and social distancing dragged from weeks to months, the social consequences of COVID-19 began to have severe impacts beyond the actual illness from the virus.

Past epidemics, like the Spanish Flu of 1918 and the SARS outbreak in 2002, led to an increase in mental health disorders and suicide rates (Tanaka and Okamoto 2021). Impacted by cautionary measures, illness, and recovery, people reported higher rates of anxiety and depression among other mental health challenges.

The global population has seen a similar response to COVID-19. Stay-at-home restrictions have cut off many people from their daily routines, sources of income, and social networks, contributing to a wide variety of psychological, social, and physical responses including anxiety, depression, loneliness and isolation, substance abuse, chronic stress, uncertainty about the future, as well as fears of contracting the disease. Suicide rates had been on the rise in the United States prior to the pandemic, but the conditions of 2020 seemed to have further increased suicidal ideation across several countries (Pan America Health Organization 2020; Sher 2020).

Reports of mental health issues, self-harm, and suicidal ideation have increased among the population in general. However, they are disproportionately affecting young adults, women, the Black and Latinx populations, essential workers, unpaid caregivers, and those with preexisting conditions (Czeisler et al. 2020). The stresses of economic and employment insecurity, strained or overburdened family relationships, lack of access to adequate medical care, workplace distress, exposure to risks of contracting COVID-19, and ongoing struggles with mental health have exacerbated many of the social inequalities already present in the United States. Furthermore, closures of schools and the move to virtual and remote learning have negatively impacted the physical and mental health of many students (Korioth 2020). These students are not only struggling with remote learning but may also be food insecure and vulnerable to domestic violence. They may also lack the services and personnel who helped them navigate their mental health through the school systems.

Perhaps the growth in issues related to mental health during 2020 is not a surprise, but experts expect these concerns will continue to increase even as we recover from the pandemic. Chronic health problems from COVID-19, damaged or strained relationships, financial insecurity, and substance abuse may all have long-lasting consequences that will continue to contribute to mental health struggles. Many medical professionals believe the peak in suicide rates has yet to come (Sher 2020).

The response to the stresses associated with COVID-19 should not come as a surprise to students of Emile Durkheim’s Suicide. In his classic study, Durkheim related suicide to social factors rather than individual ones. He identified four categories of suicide-related to degrees of integration or isolation in society: anomic suicide (normal routine is upset to the point where the individual cannot cope), egoistic suicide (where an individual does not integrate into society), altruistic suicide (taking of one’s life because of religious or political beliefs), and fatalistic suicide (oppressive social factors leave one hopeless feeling like death is the only alternative). Many of the individual and social conditions that have resulted from the current pandemic are related to contemporary patterns of suicide in the United States and other countries.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. How can Durkheim’s study of suicide help us understand why suicidal ideation and attempts have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic for various populations?
  2. Why might some people (young adults, members of minority populations, students, etc.) suffer more than others?

References:

Czeisler, Mark E. et al. 2020. “Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic – United States, June 24-30, 2020.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6932a1.htm 

Korioth, Trisha. 2020. “Study: Suicidal Behavior in Youths Higher During COVID-19 Closures Than in 2019.” American Academy of Pediatrics, December 16, 2020. https://www.aappublications.org/news/2020/12/16/pediatricssuicidestudy121620

Panchal et al. 2020. “The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use.” Kaiser Family Foundation, August 21, 2020. https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/the-implications-of-covid-19-for-mental-health-and-substance-use/

Sher, Leo. 2020. “The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Suicide Rates.” QJM: An International Journal of Medicine, 113, 10: 707-712. https://academic.oup.com/qjmed/article/113/10/707/5857612

Tanaka, Takanao and Shohei Okamoto. 2021. “Increase in suicide following an initial decline during the COVID-19 pandemic in Japan.” Nature, January 15, 2021. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-020-01042-z

About the Author

Erin K. Anderson is the Associate Professor of Sociology at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland where she has taught for 17 years. She received her B.S. in Political Science from Boise State University and her M.S. and Ph.D. in Sociology from Purdue University. She regularly teaches courses on gender, family, social psychology, and social theory. She is the author of several articles and book chapters related to gender, family, identity, and teaching and learning as well as co-editor of Family-Friendly Policies and Practices in Academe. She is active with the Eastern Sociological Society and an editor with the American Sociological Association’s Teaching Resources and Innovations Library in Sociology (TRAILS).

Profile Photo of Erin K. Anderson