Increase in Suicide Ideation and Substance Abuse During Pandemics
The fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic has harmed the lives of many. Nearly 4 out of every 10 adults in the United States have reported suffering from anxiety and depression during the pandemic. These numbers are alarming, as only 1 in 10 adults reported such feelings in the year before the pandemic. Understandably, there are many emotions caused by fear of contracting the COVID-19 virus alongside the effects of lockdowns.1
A study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that as of June 2020, 13% of Americans started turning to substances to cope with the stressors related to the pandemic.1 Compared to data from 2019, overdose rates have also risen, with an 18% increase across the United States. At present, more than 40 states are reporting opioid-related deaths and increasing concern over substance use disorders (SUD).
Suicide Risk Factors Increase During Pandemics
The following factors are associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and drive up the risk of suicide.
With isolation comes loneliness and boredom, which greatly increases the risk of suicide. Due to social distancing, people feel more disconnected than ever. Many people may not have technology access in their homes, and they are unable to go to libraries or cafes to connect to the internet. This limits communication and furthers the divide caused by loneliness.2
There are also mandated travel restrictions. Many people suffer from feelings of isolation due to living away from family and friends. Without the ability to see loved ones, depression is likely to increase. Furthermore, quarantine leads to feelings of confinement, and these emotions have a cumulative effect after so long. And as the pandemic goes on, many people feel like there is no end in sight.
Fear can be debilitating. Much is still unknown surrounding the COVID-19 virus. The information does little to reduce fear as no one knows when COVID-19 will be eliminated, if ever. Technology can also be a double-edged sword in that there is a risk of misinformation via the internet.
A lot of fear and uncertainty comes from social media and the pollution of information. Unfortunately, this also means a higher risk of suicide. An alarmingly high number of adults are currently suffering from symptoms of depression and anxiety. When irresponsible media coverage is added to the equation, fear can permeate the public at large.
Stigma and Prejudice
Another contributing factor of suicide risk is stigma and prejudice. These increase during times of isolation, as there is less communication. Misinformed or irresponsible media coverage plays a significant role in stigma and prejudice as well.
Without there being a decisive voice to reasonably discuss the pandemic, blame and xenophobia increase. As such, the feelings of isolation, loneliness, and depression heighten.
The pandemic has increased anxiety across the world. A variety of other psychological disorders have come to the forefront as well. Stress is significantly higher than it was in previous years. When combined with psychiatric disorders such as paranoia, grief, and post-traumatic stress disorders, the risk of suicide increases.
Job loss is the highest it has ever been since the Great Depression. The COVID-19 pandemic wiped out 20.5 million jobs. Families everywhere have experienced a substantial loss of income, resulting in some of the greatest economic stress in recent memory.3
People are feeling overwhelming emotions that play a hand in suicidal behavior. Feelings of guilt for not saving money better, uncertainly for what the future holds, and an underlying fear of not replenishing lost income leave widespread doubt and fear in the hearts of society. Many small businesses have been forced to shut down indefinitely, and it is harder for those who lost their job to find work in a COVID-19 centric world.
Video: How A Pandemic Affects Domestic Violence
Couples everywhere have experienced greater strain due to confinement. Too much time together can lead to increased stress and tension and the potential for domestic violence.
Families with children may feel an even greater burden. While some have been able to work from home, attempting to juggle both a job and childcare makes for a stressful situation. If one partner feels that they are taking on the bulk of childcare, animosity can develop.
These risk factors play a role in the increase of suicidal behavior. Those confined to home are more likely to experience feelings of isolation, consequently furthering thoughts of fear, stigma, and prejudice. More people being affected by job loss and experiencing poor mental and medical attention. According to a January 2021 survey by the United States Census Bureau, a staggering 41.1% of American adults are suffering from symptoms of anxiety and depressive disorders.4
The Overlap of Risk Factors for Suicide and Substance Abuse
Loneliness is a significant driving force behind substance use disorder. When the pandemic forced people to stay at home, the risk of substance abuse increased. Combined with the concern for suicidal behavior, isolation is a major factor in the overlapping of these two problems.5
Fear leads people to turn to substance abuse to escape. However, that escape only lasts so long before the stressors return. As a result, suicidal behavior becomes even more prominent, leaving the individual struggling to cope with the reality of the pandemic.
Stigma and Prejudice
When substances enter the body, the individual may feel like they can balance out pervasive prejudice. Such feelings are artificial and driven only by substance use, resulting in higher emotional levels than before. As a result, greater feelings of depression follow, increasing the risk of suicide.
An individual might turn to substances to mask emotions, whether guilt, sorrow, fear, or otherwise. This masking effect only lasts so long, leaving the person with a substance use disorder to feel increased levels of depression. The emotions that follow substance use are often more difficult to manage, leading to a significant increase in suicidal risk factors.
A person with a substance use disorder is likely to have increased feelings of suicidal behavior if they lost their job due to the pandemic. Without the income to support substance use disorder, depression and other emotions are likely to set in. Without proper treatment, the risks for both issues are of great concern. As such, a viable solution is needed to ensure the health and safety of the person with a substance use disorder.6
Similar to the effects of economic stress, relationships, where one or both people have a substance use disorder, can quickly escalate to domestic violence. A person with a substance use disorder is likely to become violent when they are unable to cope with emotions or lose access to substances. The risk of domestic violence can become even further increased when children are in the picture, as stress levels can rise more easily.
When the risk factors related to suicide and substance use disorder overlap, the need for helpful medical resources is greater than ever. In some cases, suicidal behavior and reliance on substances have overshadowed medical conditions because of ongoing isolation, although fear plays a significant role in these problems as well.
Who Suffers the Most from Suicide and Substance Abuse During Pandemics?
Increase in Suicidal Ideation During Pandemics
Some people are impacted by the pandemic more so than others. Suicidal ideation is shown to be higher in groups suffering increased stress, grief, guilt, and other emotional issues. People who are most likely to increase suicidal ideation during a pandemic are:
Without a proper helpline, individuals suffering from depression and anxiety may not be able to overcome such feelings alone.
The Rise of Telemedicine to Meet the Needs During the Pandemic
As people are asked to stay at home to protect the health of others, telemedicine, or the practice of caring for patients remotely, has greatly increased in popularity. Types of telemedicine include:
- Synchronous Telehealth: Synchronous Telehealth refers to real-time interactions, such as Zoom and other similar programs.
- Remote Patient Monitoring: This type of telemedicine allows providers to monitor a patient’s vitals remotely via a device.
- Store-and-Forward Telemedicine: Like remote patient monitoring, store-and-forward telemedicine uses the Cloud to store a patient’s vitals for later review.
- Mobile Health: Also known as mHealth, mobile health takes advantage of smart devices to record and relay data to a medical provider remotely.
How Telemedicine Addresses Substance Abuse
Thanks to telemedicine, medical providers are now able to use wearable devices, medical patches, and ingestible devices to treat patients from afar. Designed to work around opioid misuse, these telemedicine devices can deliver timed doses to the patient, thus ensuring safer treatment.7
How Do Previous Pandemics Compare to COVID-19?
COVID-19 is considerably more dangerous than swine flu. Whereas COVID-19 is responsible for 2.79 million deaths worldwide, swine flu killed approximately 284,000 people. The symptoms of swine flu are similar to many of the symptoms of other flu types. According to the CDC, these symptoms include:
As per the CDC, these are the most common symptoms associated with COVID-19:
With an estimated 1 to 4 million deaths, the 1968 flu was possibly deadlier than COVID-19. If the latter figure is accurate, the 1968 flu beats COVID-19 deaths by about 1.2 million. At present, COVID is responsible for 2.79 million deaths worldwide.
Also known as the Spanish flu, the 1918 flu took the lives of 50 million people worldwide. While this is considerably higher than COVID-19 deaths, the current pandemic isn’t over. If history is any indication, there could be more waves of COVID-19 yet to come.8 The Spanish flu came in 4 waves, thus leaving many to speculate whether COVID-19 is on its way out or just getting started.
How Financial Safety Nets Affect Suicide and Substance Abuse Rates
There are several ways the financial safety net affects suicide and substance abuse rates.
Income Loss and Living Security
Although it is difficult to say when jobs will return to normal and how many people will return to the workforce, many rely on unemployment payments to get through the pandemic. Conversely, economic relief checks help offset the loss of income, but only by so much. These checks can’t be relied on for a sustainable living, so additional sources of income need to be explored.
Some foodbanks are reopening to help the public with income loss mitigation. However, these aren’t as widespread as they once were due to safety concerns. As such, it’s important to consider sustainable food sources within the home. Planting gardens is ideal, but not everyone has the luxury of yard space. Indoor devices can be purchased for growing plants at home, with some capable of growing as many as 24 plants at once.
Fortunately, more medical providers are opening for business again. However, it’s difficult to get into many places without waiting. This is due to the new safety measures put into place, which limit how many patients can be in a facility at one time. Thanks to the conveniences of telemedicine, more patients can be safely seen from the privacy of the home.
Europe vs. the U.S.
Europe has seen a greater amount of relief for workers, ensuring that millions have an effective lifeline during this time of uncertainty. Comparatively, the United States has fewer support packages going out to its citizens.9 That said, the United States is allowing more businesses to open, whereas Europe is still largely locked down. As a result, there are more opportunities to return to work in America, restoring income for many who were once jobless.
Suicide and substance abuse are already significant problems across the globe. The long-term effects of the pandemic on these issues are not yet clear. Arrow Passage Recovery can help those battling suicidal thoughts or substance abuse even during times of a pandemic. Contact a member of our dedicated staff to learn more about our treatments and the safety measures we have in place.