COVID-19 depression and suicide

There has been some discussion about the affects of COVID-19 and lockdowns on mental health. Now despite the memes that have circulated on social media about spiralling suicide rates, the data as we have it does not suggest that this seems to be the case. If there have been any increases in incidents, they reflect a trend that was already in place over the past few years which itself may reflect changes to reporting methods.[1]

I’m not surprised by this, both in terms of my observations as a pastor and my own experience of depression and anxiety.  There are a few reasons why I’m not surprised and they relate to how we perceive and understand or misunderstand mental health issues.  Take for example this comment made on twitter in a conversation about mental health affects of COVID.

This reflects a common conflation of our colloquial use of “depressing” to mean miserable and a cause of sadness and disappointing.  We can talk about the lockdown being depressing or Bradford City’s results being depressing. However we need to distinguish that use of “depressing” from the concept of clinical depression. As my friend Steve Kneale frequently reminds people, being depressed is not the same as feeling a bit blue or being a bit morose at any given time.  It is a specific medical condition with serious and debilitating consequences.

Secondly, I sometimes pick up on the assumption that depression automatically leads to suicidal tendencies.  I know friends who have talked openly about experiencing that pull to try and take their own life.  At the same time, I have also described how my own period of illness never included such a compulsion.  I suspect, from hearing various stories that this reflects the fact that we are all constitutionally different and all come with different life experiences prior to a depressive episode.  Therefore there will be people wo will experience suicidal thoughts as a symptom of their illness but not everyone will.

Thirdly, and this is important before we become complacent about the matter. As I have described my own experience, I have commented that whilst suicidal thoughts were not an issue, the temptation to run and hide or to walk and keep walking was very real.  I have also suggested that from pastoral experience I see a variety of ways in which people attempt to run and hide or to hit the self-destruct button. It isn’t just physical self-harm.

What this means is that we should not automatically assume that the pandemic will lead to a suicide pandemic. Nor should we confuse the absence of such a suicide pandemic with an absence of serious mental health consequences. Indeed, I suspect that the initial lockdown will not have created the most visible problems as in many respects it offered an  opportunity to hide away and isolation which can be a real pull when you are struggling. I suspect that the risk factor in terms of serious mental health issues and suicide risks will come in any further lockdowns, so the current post Christmas, mid-winter, Tier 4 contexts may create the greatest risk so far.  I also think we need to be alert to the risk that particular emotional health issues including suicidal thoughts and attempts will come as and when we move back towards normality not least because it will be then that people will be feeling particularly out of kilter with a world where people suddenly seem to have found hope and happiness again. That will be the danger point and it is then that we need to prepare for.

This conversation is crucial because without careful and thoughtful responses, the risk is that we will miss when people are suffering from depression and other mental health issues because they won’t fit our stereotypes. Furthermore, if we don’t know what to look for in terms of suicide risk, then we will miss the opportunity to prevent attempts.

The aim of this article is to encourage more of a conversation so that those of us with a concern and a responsibility for those most at risk can think about how to respond. I look forward to hearing the thinking of others.


[1] See reports available here NCISH | Frequently asked questions – NCISH (manchester.ac.uk)  noting the caution expressed about coming to early conclusions too.

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