ROCHESTER, Minn. — One of the persistent refrains of 2020, from both critics and supporters of COVID-19 shutdowns, has been the assertion that the risk of suicide shot up during lockdowns.
Much of this line of thought began back in August, when the CDC reported the results of a 5,470-person survey it had taken in June. It reported 11% of those surveyed "having seriously considered suicide in the preceding 30 days."
That was more than a doubling over answers to that question in 2018, when 4.3% of those surveyed reported suicidal ideation in the entire previous 12 months.
For young adults surveyed in 2020, the degree of suicidal ideation sparked by COVID-19 was even higher. More than 25% percent of those between 18-25 stated last summer they had considered suicide in the previous 30 days.
These findings were nested inside of a larger set of bad news about the ill-effects on mental well-being during COVID-19. More than 30% of those surveyed reported anxiety and depression during the pandemic, while about 13% reported having started or increased substance use as a result of the pandemic.
In the wake of that news, critics of pandemic mitigation said suicides were rising in 2020, and lockdowns therefore should be lifted.
“We need to get back to our way of life, because there are serious mental health issues," House GOP Whip Steve Scalise told Politico back in May. "You’re seeing suicides on the rise.”
Last month, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem echoed this belief, writing that "because we balanced fighting the virus with maintaining social, economic, and mental health, South Dakota didn’t see an increase in suicide rates."
Others also warned of "a wave" of rising suicides due to COVID-19, without any comment on the need to lift lockdowns, focusing instead on greater provision of mental health treatments.
"Experts warned that the toxic mix of isolation and economic devastation could generate a wave of suicides," offered a Washington Post account of the problem last November. NPR reported a similar assumption, that "psychiatrists... say the pandemic has created a perfect storm of stressors for kids, increasing the risk of suicide for many."
This drumbeat of predictions that suicide would soar during the pandemic were largely taken at face value, incorporated into a familiar pandemic narrative while waiting for hard numbers. This week, those numbers arrived.
Everyone was wrong.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researchers last week reported in the journal JAMA that there were 44,834 suicides recorded within the United States in 2020, a 5.6% drop from 2019. That is the lowest figure for suicides in the U.S. since 2015. It is more than 1,500 lower than 2019, more than 2,500 suicides lower than 2018.
The drop didn't reflect a year, moreover, that was any safer when it came to other causes of death. To the contrary, suicides in 2020 went in the reverse direction. In 2020, deaths from stroke, Alzheimer's, diabetes, kidney disease and unintentional injuries all rose.
"Increases in unintentional injury deaths in 2020," the authors wrote, "were largely driven by drug overdose deaths," suggesting the nation's costly opioid epidemic is far from over.
Opioid deaths have been linked with a drop in life expectancy in the U.S. in recent years, and the authors affirmed that 2020 was a year in which life expectancy dropped.
"Early estimates of life expectancy at birth," the authors added "based on provisional data for January to June 2020, show historic declines not seen since World War II (1942-1943)."
The new CDC findings add to data showing "stable rates of suicide deaths during the stay-at-home advisory in Massachusetts," findings based on the first three months of the pandemic and also published last January in JAMA.
That report conducted a highly conservative analysis in which deaths pending investigation were all classified as suicide, but the result remained the same, one of no increase in the suicide rate in 2020.
Those authors speculated that COVID-19 made society experience less psychological isolation — that "social distancing–created stressors may have been offset by a sense of shared purpose in flattening the curve."