New international study using ADP SeRP finds no increase in risk of suicide during first months of the pandemic

A new observational study by Adolescent Mental Health Data Platform (ADP), published in the journal Lancet Psychiatry, is the first to examine suicides occurring during the early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. Data from multiple countries were analysed. The authors discovered that suicide numbers remained largely unchanged or declined in the pandemic’s early months.
The authors note that – while their study provides the best available evidence on the pandemic’s effects on suicide so far – it only provides a snapshot of the first few months of the pandemic and effects on suicide might not necessarily occur immediately.

Lead author, Professor Jane Pirkis, Director of the Centre for Mental Health at the University of Melbourne, Australia, said,
“We need to continue to monitor the data and be alert to any increases in suicide, particularly as the pandemic’s full economic consequences emerge. Policymakers should recognise the importance of high-quality, timely data to support suicide prevention efforts, and should work to mitigate suicide risk factors associated with COVID-19, such as the heightened levels of stress and financial difficulties that some people may experience as a result of the pandemic. Increasing mental health services and suicide prevention programmes and providing financial safety nets may help to prevent the possible longer-term detrimental effects of the pandemic on suicide.”

“We know that many people have had their lives changed dramatically by the pandemic, and the journey for some of them is ongoing. We need to recognise that suicide is not the only indicator of the negative mental health effects of the pandemic – levels of community distress are high, and we need to ensure that people are supported.”

It’s expected that mental health effects of the pandemic will vary between and within countries, and over time, depending on factors such as the extent of the pandemic, the public health measures used to control it, the capacity of existing mental health services and suicide prevention programmes, and the strength of the economy and relief measures to support those whose livelihoods are affected by the pandemic.
Few studies have examined the effects of any widespread infectious disease outbreaks on suicide. The new study included around 70 authors from 30 countries who are members of the International COVID-19 Suicide Prevention Research Collaboration (ICSPRC), which was created to share knowledge about the impact of the pandemic on suicide and suicidal behaviour and advise on ways to mitigate any risks.
Stored within the ADP’s SeRP (Secure eResearch Platform), the study used real-time suicide data obtained from official government sources, to determine whether trends in monthly suicide counts changed after the pandemic began. They compared numbers of monthly suicides before COVID-19 (estimated using modelling of available data from at least 1 January 2019 to 31 March 2020, and in some cases ranging from 1 January 2016) with numbers observed in the early months of the pandemic (from 1 April 2020 to 31 July 2020) to determine how suicide trends changed during the pandemic. The study included 21 countries and regions (16 high-income, and 5 upper-middle-income), including whole-country data in 10 countries and data for 25 specific areas in 11 countries.
The authors found no evidence of an increase in suicide numbers in the early months of the pandemic in any of the countries included. In 12 areas there was evidence of a decrease in suicide, compared to the expected numbers.
The authors note that their findings could be explained by some of the steps that governments took in the various countries such as increasing provision of mental health services, financial hardship support, fostering community togetherness and additional support for the vulnerable.

Swansea University’s Professor Ann John said,
“This study has been an important and unprecedented international collaboration amongst suicide prevention researchers around the world. It highlights the importance of high-quality, timely data to support suicide prevention efforts. While these early results are reassuring, it’s vital that we stay vigilant as the economic consequences of the pandemic evolve and impact people’s lives. We need to continue to take steps to mitigate risk as far as possible- ensuring people are supported- financially, when in crisis and in employment ,training or education.”

The authors note that their study did not include low or lower-middle-income countries, which account for 46% of the world’s suicides and might have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. Future research is needed to explore the association between the pandemic and suicide in different age groups, genders and ethnicities, and also to examine the effects of different public health measures to contain the pandemic or economic support packages on suicide patterns.
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