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Has the COVID-19 pandemic influenced suicide rates differentially according to socioeconomic indices and ethnicity? More evidence is needed globally

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 October 2022

Roger T. Webb*
Affiliation:
Division of Psychology and Mental Health, The University of Manchester, Manchester, UK National Institute for Health and Care Research Greater Manchester Patient Safety Translational Research Centre (NIHR GM PSTRC), Manchester, UK
Ann John
Affiliation:
Swansea University Medical School, Swansea University, Swansea, UK Public Health Wales, Cardiff, UK
Duleeka Knipe
Affiliation:
Population Health Sciences, Bristol Medical School, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK
Lana Bojanić
Affiliation:
Division of Psychology and Mental Health, The University of Manchester, Manchester, UK
Dana Dekel
Affiliation:
Public Health Wales, Cardiff, UK
Emily Eyles
Affiliation:
Population Health Sciences, Bristol Medical School, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK National Institute for Health and Care Research Applied Research Collaboration West (NIHR ARC West), University Hospitals Bristol and Weston NHS Foundation Trust, Bristol, UK
Amanda Marchant
Affiliation:
Swansea University Medical School, Swansea University, Swansea, UK
Faraz Mughal
Affiliation:
School of Medicine, Keele University, Keele, UK
Jane Pirkis
Affiliation:
Centre for Mental Health, Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, The University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia
Lena Schmidt
Affiliation:
Population Health Sciences, Bristol Medical School, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK Sciome LLC, Research Triangle Park, Durham, NC, USA
David Gunnell
Affiliation:
National Institute for Health and Care Research Applied Research Collaboration West (NIHR ARC West), University Hospitals Bristol and Weston NHS Foundation Trust, Bristol, UK National Institute for Health and Care Research Biomedical Research Centre, University Hospitals Bristol and Weston NHS Foundation Trust and the University of Bristol, Bristol, UK
*
Author for correspondence: Roger T. Webb, E-mail: roger.webb@manchester.ac.uk
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Abstract

The COVID-19 pandemic has harmed many people's mental health globally. Whilst the evidence generated thus far from high-income countries regarding the pandemic's impact on suicide rates is generally reassuring, we know little about its influence on this outcome in lower- and middle-income countries or among marginalised and disadvantaged people. There are some signals for concern regarding the pandemic's potentially unequal impact on suicide rates, with some of the affected demographic subgroups and regions being at elevated risk before the pandemic began. However, the evidence-base for this topic is currently sparse, and studies conducted to date have generally not taken account of pre-pandemic temporal trends. The collection of accurate, complete and comparable data on suicide rate trends in ethnic minority and low-income groups should be prioritised. The vulnerability of low-income groups will likely be exacerbated further by the current energy supply and cost-of-living crises in many countries. It is therefore crucial that reassuring messaging highlighting the stability of suicide rates during the pandemic does not lead to complacency among policymakers.

Type
Editorial
Creative Commons
Creative Common License - CCCreative Common License - BY
This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution and reproduction, provided the original article is properly cited.
Copyright
Copyright © The Author(s), 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press

The unequal adverse impact of the COVID-19 pandemic

By September 2022 over 600 million people had been infected by SARS-CoV-2 and approximately 6.5 million had died from COVID-19 (Worldometer). Excess mortality from all causes during the pandemic has been greatest amongst ethnic minority groups and deprived communities (Barnard et al., Reference Barnard, Fryers, Fitzpatrick, Fox, Waller, Baker, Burton, Newton, Doyle and Goldblatt2021; Stokes et al., Reference Stokes, Lundberg, Elo, Hempstead, Bor and Preston2021). The infectious disease itself, along with societal restrictions implemented to control the virus's spread and subsequent economic fallout, have impacted negatively on many people's mental health globally (Santomauro et al., Reference Santomauro2021). The mental health of individuals in ethnic minority and low-income groups has been particularly badly affected in some countries (Maffly-Kipp et al., Reference Maffly-Kipp, Eisenbeck, Carreno and Hicks2021; Pierce et al., Reference Pierce, McManus, Hope, Hotopf, Ford, Hatch, John, Kontopantelis, Webb, Wessely and Abel2021).

Despite the pandemic's evident harmful mental health impact, a recent analysis of suicide rates in 33 nations (and regions of countries) over the first 9–15 months of the pandemic revealed little evidence of heightened suicide risk (Pirkis et al., Reference Pirkis, Gunnell, Shin, Del Pozo-Banos, Arya, Aguilar, Appleby, Arafat, Arensman, Ayuso-Mateos, Balhara, Bantjes, Baran, Behera, Bertolote, Borges, Bray, Brečić, Caine, Calati, Carli, Castelpietra, Chan, Chang, Colchester, Coss-Guzmán, Crompton, Ćurković, Dandona, De Jaegere, De Leo, Deisenhammer, Dwyer, Erlangsen, Faust, Fornaro, Fortune, Garrett, Gentile, Gerstner, Gilissen, Gould, Gupta, Hawton, Holz, Kamenshchikov, Kapur, Kasal, Khan, Kirtley, Knipe, Kõlves, Kölzer, Krivda, Leske, Madeddu, Marshall, Memon, Mittendorfer-Rutz, Nestadt, Neznanov, Niederkrotenthaler, Nielsen, Nordentoft, Oberlerchner, O'Connor, Papsdorf, Partonen, Phillips, Platt, Portzky, Psota, Qin, Radeloff, Reif, Reif-Leonhard, Rezaeian, Román-Vázquez, Roskar, Rozanov, Sara, Scavacini, Schneider, Semenova, Sinyor, Tambuzzi, Townsend, Ueda, Wasserman, Webb, Winkler, Yip, Zalsman, Zoja, John and Spittal2022), although case counts were greater than expected in some places and for certain age/sex groups. However, temporal trends in suicide rates among ethnic minority groups could not be examined due to a lack of granularity in the reported results. Such an assessment is crucial because social marginalisation (Di Thiene et al., Reference Di Thiene, Alexanderson, Tinghög, La Torre and Mittendorfer-Rutz2015) and material deprivation (Rehkopf and Buka, Reference Rehkopf and Buka2006; Li et al., Reference Li, Page, Martin and Taylor2011) are known to be major determinants of suicide risk at the population level.

Utilising published outputs identified by our ‘living systematic review’ of suicide and suicidal behaviour during the pandemic (John et al., Reference John, Okolie, Eyles, Webb, Schmidt, McGuiness, Olorisade, Arensman, Hawton, Kapur, Moran, O'Connor, O'Neill, Higgins and Gunnell2020), this editorial summarises the relatively small volume of evidence indicating an unequal impact of the pandemic on risk of dying by suicide among ethnic minority groups and in people on low incomes and between areas according to their varying levels of social deprivation.

Emerging evidence of divergent temporal trends in suicide rates according to socioeconomic indices and ethnicity since the start of the pandemic

Indicative evidence for the unequal impact of the pandemic on suicide rates across socioeconomic and ethnic groups has thus far been generated from a small set of countries. Much of the evidence has emanated from the USA, including three state-wide investigations, in Connecticut (Mitchell and Li, Reference Mitchell and Li2021), Maryland (Bray et al., Reference Bray, Daneshvari, Radhakrishnan, Cubbage, Eagle, Southall and Nestadt2021) and Michigan (Larson and Bergmans, Reference Larson and Bergmans2022), and a national analysis (Ehlman et al., Reference Ehlman, Yard, Stone, Jones and Mack2022). Each of these studies was conducted using individual-level data and each revealed reductions in suicide rates among White Americans in 2020, with no evidence of similar falls in ethnic minority groups during the pandemic's first year. Between 2019 and 2020 the suicide rate among all US residents fell by 3%, with the largest reduction (4.5%) found among non-Hispanic White people (Ehlman et al., Reference Ehlman, Yard, Stone, Jones and Mack2022). However, in this national study, rates in Hispanic males and non-Hispanic multiracial females increased by 29 and 6%, respectively. Rates also increased by 10% among American Indian and Alaska Native males – groups with the highest suicide rates in the US prior to the pandemic, although the small size of this ethnic group meant that statistical evidence for the rise was insubstantial. Other methodological limitations of these US studies included broad ethnicity categorisation (Mitchell and Li, Reference Mitchell and Li2021), inconsistent patterns by ethnicity found across the whole observation period (Bray et al., Reference Bray, Daneshvari, Radhakrishnan, Cubbage, Eagle, Southall and Nestadt2021), and crude comparison of annual rates between two single adjacent years without consideration of prior temporal trends (Ehlman et al., Reference Ehlman, Yard, Stone, Jones and Mack2022).

Japan is one of relatively few high-income countries where the national suicide rate rose during the pandemic. It increased by 16% during the second infection wave in late 2020 (Tanaka and Okamoto, Reference Tanaka and Okamoto2021). With two temporal trend graphs plotted separately providing a crude ecological correlational indication, Horita and Moriguchi (Reference Horita and Moriguchi2022) reported that suicide and unemployment rates both rose concurrently in Japan during the pandemic's second wave. Given what is known about the hugely damaging impact of previous economic downturns on suicide rates (Barr et al., Reference Barr, Taylor-Robinson, Scott-Samuel, McKee and Stuckler2012; Reeves et al., Reference Reeves, Stuckler, McKee, Gunnell, Chang and Basu2012), the looming threat of recession in many countries globally, and its potential for widening existing inequities in suicide risk, is particularly concerning.

Evidence for temporal trends in suicide rates in lower- and middle-income countries during the pandemic is limited, which is a major concern given that roughly four in five of all suicides worldwide occur in these nations (Knipe et al., Reference Knipe, John, Padmanathan, Eyles, Dekel, Higgins, Bantjes, Dandona, Macleod-Hall, McGuinness, Schmidt, Webb and Gunnell2022). Some evidence of varying temporal trends in suicide risk according to ethnicity and socioeconomic indices has emerged (Pirkis et al., Reference Pirkis, Gunnell, Shin, Del Pozo-Banos, Arya, Aguilar, Appleby, Arafat, Arensman, Ayuso-Mateos, Balhara, Bantjes, Baran, Behera, Bertolote, Borges, Bray, Brečić, Caine, Calati, Carli, Castelpietra, Chan, Chang, Colchester, Coss-Guzmán, Crompton, Ćurković, Dandona, De Jaegere, De Leo, Deisenhammer, Dwyer, Erlangsen, Faust, Fornaro, Fortune, Garrett, Gentile, Gerstner, Gilissen, Gould, Gupta, Hawton, Holz, Kamenshchikov, Kapur, Kasal, Khan, Kirtley, Knipe, Kõlves, Kölzer, Krivda, Leske, Madeddu, Marshall, Memon, Mittendorfer-Rutz, Nestadt, Neznanov, Niederkrotenthaler, Nielsen, Nordentoft, Oberlerchner, O'Connor, Papsdorf, Partonen, Phillips, Platt, Portzky, Psota, Qin, Radeloff, Reif, Reif-Leonhard, Rezaeian, Román-Vázquez, Roskar, Rozanov, Sara, Scavacini, Schneider, Semenova, Sinyor, Tambuzzi, Townsend, Ueda, Wasserman, Webb, Winkler, Yip, Zalsman, Zoja, John and Spittal2022), including two studies conducted in lower-middle income countries (India: Arya et al., Reference Arya, Andrew, Spittal, Rakhi, Vijayakumar, Munasinghe, John, Gunnell, Pirkis and Armstrong2022; Nepal: Archarya et al., Reference Archarya, Subedi, Acharya and Ghimire2022) and another two studies carried out in upper-middle income countries (Brazil: Orellana and de Souza, Reference Orellana and de Souza2022; Ecuador: Gerstner et al., Reference Gerstner, Narvaez, Leske, Troya, Analuisa-Aguilar, Spittal and Gunnell2022). For three of these studies ecological analyses were conducted using information on socioeconomic indices aggregated regionally (Archarya et al., Reference Archarya, Subedi, Acharya and Ghimire2022; Arya et al., Reference Arya, Andrew, Spittal, Rakhi, Vijayakumar, Munasinghe, John, Gunnell, Pirkis and Armstrong2022; Orellana and de Souza, Reference Orellana and de Souza2022), and therefore their reported findings must be interpreted cautiously (Piantadosi et al., Reference Piantadosi, Byar and Green1988).

In India, annual suicide rates were already rising prior to the pandemic, but the increase observed during 2020 (18% in males; 5% in females) was greater compared to preceding rate rises. This increase was particularly evident among males in low sociodemographic index (SDI) states and among males and females in the high SDI states (Arya et al., Reference Arya, Andrew, Spittal, Rakhi, Vijayakumar, Munasinghe, John, Gunnell, Pirkis and Armstrong2022). In Nepal, the largest increases in suicide rates across the first 15 months of the pandemic were observed in two of the nation's poorest provinces with low human development indices as well as a large volume of seasonal migrant workers (Archarya et al., Reference Archarya, Subedi, Acharya and Ghimire2022). Between March and December 2020, the national suicide rate in Brazil fell by 13%, but substantial excess suicide risks were observed in some age and sex groups in the nation's more deprived provincial regions. Thus, a 26% excess of suicides occurred among men aged 60 years and older in the Northern region, and in the North-Eastern region there was a 40% excess in women aged 60 years and older (Orellana and de Souza, Reference Orellana and de Souza2022). In Ecuador, there was no rise in frequency of all police-reported suicides between March 2020 and June 2021, with a proportional decrease in suicides observed among indigenous people and other ethnic minority groups (Gerstner et al., Reference Gerstner, Narvaez, Leske, Troya, Analuisa-Aguilar, Spittal and Gunnell2022).

Recommendations for developing a complete evidence-base for the pandemic's unequal impact on suicide risk

Developing such an evidence-base that is both robust and comprehensive is an urgent priority that will in due course inform post-pandemic suicide prevention strategies. It is crucial that the currently incomplete and inconsistent patchwork of evidence regarding the pandemic's demographically uneven impact on suicide risk is augmented and strengthened. This will entail utilising what is now historic routinely collected interlinked registry data in some countries, such as the Scandinavian nations. In other countries, novel data linkages will be required to expedite these investigations. In many of the poorest parts of the world, due to an absence of good quality population-based data, the true extent to which the pandemic heightened pre-existing mental health inequalities, including suicide risk, is unknown at this time. Investigators ought to prioritise conducting high-quality local studies in the absence of population-based linked datasets in these countries.

During 2020 and 2021, many researchers tended to examine temporal trends in suicide case counts or rates using brief time periods in line with dynamic fluctuations in SARS-CoV-2 infection rates or imposition v. lifting of societal restrictions. Consequently, some investigations were statistically underpowered for identifying short-term variability in trends according to ethnic or socioeconomic subgroups. As researchers retrospectively develop comprehensive evidence of the pandemic's potentially uneven demographic impact on suicide rates, considerably longer time periods should be examined to maximise statistical power. Other longstanding impediments that are not specific to the pandemic epoch include inaccurate or incomplete recording of ethnicity in electronic health records (Gomez et al., Reference Gomez, Kelsey, Glaser, Lee and Sidney2005) and in cause-specific mortality records, delays in assignment of suicide as a cause of death due to protracted coronial procedures (Cui et al., Reference Cui, Yip and Chau2004), and a scarcity of population-based datasets that would enable multilevel modelling of suicide risk at individual, household and neighbourhood levels.

The role of socioeconomic differences in driving divergent regional temporal trends in suicide rates during the pandemic according to their levels of urbanicity–rurality also requires elucidation. The complex relationship between population density and poverty is likely to vary greatly between different parts of the world. Thus, the greatest falls in suicide rates in the USA during 2020 occurred in large metropolitan urban centres, whereas rates did not fall in the nation's predominantly rural regions (Ehlman et al., Reference Ehlman, Yard, Stone, Jones and Mack2022). By contrast, in that year higher population density predicted suicide rate increases across Mexico's 32 states, with approximately twice as many suicides occurring in Mexico City than the expected value (Borges et al., Reference Borges, Garcia, Pirkis, Spittal, Gunnell, Sinyor and John2022). Similarly, in Ecuador, the proportion of suicides occurring in urban and coastal regions rose (Gerstner et al., Reference Gerstner, Narvaez, Leske, Troya, Analuisa-Aguilar, Spittal and Gunnell2022).

Conclusion

Although the evidence-base for this topic is limited, there are some clear early signals that the pandemic's impact on suicide risk has been variable according to ethnicity and socioeconomic indices. This indicates that policymakers will need to implement financial safety nets and other mitigatory measures (Gunnell et al., Reference Gunnell, Appleby, Arensman, Hawton, John, Kapur, Khan, O'Connor and Pirkis2020; Shand et al., Reference Shand, Duffy and Torok2022) to protect the most vulnerable individuals, families and communities during what seems likely to be troubled and turbulent post-pandemic era. This is especially important given the current challenges to global mental health posed by climate change and extreme weather events, economic instability and stagnation, civil unrest, armed conflict between nations and threats to the supply of affordable food and energy. There may be no universally consistent patterns of uneven impact on suicide risk because the extent and severity of COVID-19, the measures implemented to prevent the virus's spread and the economic protection measures have differed greatly between different parts of the world as well as between and within countries.

Accurate and complete coding of ethnicity and socioeconomic indices in mortality records and in other linkable routinely collected datasets should be prioritised. As much as is possible, coding and classification of such information ought to be standardised internationally. Real-time surveillance (RTS) of suicide rates is also urgently needed in all countries (Baran et al., Reference Baran, Gerstner, Ueda and Gmitrowicz2021), perhaps starting at municipality level initially in countries where resources are relatively scarce and digital infrastructures are not advanced. Newly developed RTS systems will require sufficient granularity for identifying high-risk demographic subgroups whilst informing rapid evidence-based policy responses, which can be a challenging trade-off. Public agencies also need to monitor temporal trends in ‘deaths of despair’ from drug overdoses and alcohol misuse as well as suicide (Arena et al., Reference Arena, Malta, Rimoin and Strathdee2020).

Financial support

DG is supported by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) Biomedical Research Centre at University Hospitals Bristol and Weston NHS Foundation Trust and the University of Bristol; FM, Doctoral Fellow, NIHR300957 is funded by the NIHR. RTW is supported by the NIHR Greater Manchester Patient Safety Translational Research Centre. The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the NIHR, National Health Service (NHS) or the UK Department of Health and Social Care.

Conflict of interest

None.

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