Content note: Suicide
Suicide is something we seldom talk about. It’s a difficult conversation at the best of times. Now, as we enter our hopefully final week of national lockdown (with takeaways) many of us are feeling uncertain, bored, lonely and fearful. It’s a tough time to be talking about such a heavy subject, but I fear that the risks of staying silent are grave.
I don’t speak about suicide lightly. I’d rather not speak of it at all, as it came very close to claiming my life in my early twenties. Suicide is not some theoretical issue to me, it was an all-too-real threat to my existence. Which is why I’m so concerned about it now. I fear that shying away from the conversation at this stage may mean that we’re not ready for the challenges ahead of us. And with a mental health system that is already buckling under pressure in normal times, those challenges could be overwhelming.
In New Zealand all suicides have to be ruled as such by the coroner, which results in delays in reporting suicide statistics. In Australia, where the framework is similar, experts are already raising the alarm about the impact of COVID-19 upon suicide rates and the difficulties in effectively preventing suicides when there’s such a data lag about when and where the suicides are happening.
Modelling by the Australian Brain and Mind Centre suggests that the impacts of COVID-19 may cause an extra 750 suicides per year in Australia if unemployment reaches 11 per cent, and an extra 1,500 suicides per year if unemployment reaches 16 per cent. Here in New Zealand, Treasury modelling suggests that unemployment will rise steeply as a result of COVID-19, and could reach a level as high as 26 per cent.
The New Zealand Mental Health Foundation was quick to respond to unverified suicide numbers circulating on social media last week (and full disclosure: I unwisely and without proper consideration expressed shock at and retweeted a tweet containing unverified information around suicide numbers, which I have since deleted and apologised for), refuting the implication that suicide numbers have risen during the lockdown, but there has been no information provided to the public about the impact of COVID-19 upon mental health here in New Zealand.
Australian experts are calling for real time suicide data so that they can respond swiftly and prevent “suicide contagion”. They’re asking for a national register of suspected suicides, informed by police, ambulance and emergency room data, so they can quickly respond by supporting the bereaved (who research has shown are at higher risk themselves of suicide) and tracking any patterns that may be useful to prevent future suicides. "I think a crisis like COVID-19 means we really need to get this happening soon because there will be a surge in suicide risk in the coming months,” Professor Pat McGorry told the ABC recently.
Despite calls in New Zealand for information about the mental health impacts of COVID-19 in Aotearoa, no such information has been forthcoming from any of the authorities, aside from the police saying that anecdotally they don’t believe there’s been a surge in mental health callouts at this stage. While the Mental Health Foundation has been quick to suggest that it’s “irresponsible” to be raising the issue that suicide may sadly be something some people consider when dealing with the struggles caused by COVID-19 and the resultant lockdown, it’s interesting to compare its response to that of Australian experts who are publicly calling for more information in order to prevent further tragedies.
In my opinion, of course speaking anecdotally as just one person who has been suicidal in the past (in part because of the economic destruction of the Global Financial Crisis), it’s not talk of suicide that poses the biggest risk to those who are considering taking their own life. Isolation, pretending that nothing is wrong and shutting down conversations about suicide can be extremely invalidating and distressing. Up to the minute data may help to identify vulnerable people who could otherwise fall through the cracks. Having the conversation and acknowledging that people may have thoughts about suicide over the coming weeks and months also gives us an opportunity to encourage people to check on their friends and family, and to reach out if they’re struggling.
So I don’t plan to shut up about suicide. I will be careful to check my sources in future, but I don’t believe that it is irresponsible to be up front about the very real possibility that heightened economic suffering may cause increased mental health struggles. If experts in Australia are doing the modelling in order to prepare and attempt to prevent the worst, and urging officials to fast-track real time suicide data, then why aren’t we demanding the same?Support Villainesse