Is there a link between suicide and epidemics?

August 1, 2021

Infographic on suicide risk and COVID-19. Accessible PDF version available at systematic review published by Dr. Simon Hatcher, in partnership with researchers across Ontario, the United Kingdom, and Ireland, looked at the relationship between public health epidemics and the risk of suicide and self-harm.

Their systematic review, published in Crisis in late 2020, included 13 studies (8 primary papers, 1 pre-print, and 4 case studies) that explored the relationship between previous pandemics, such as SARS and Ebola, and suicide-related outcomes, including death by suicide, suicidal ideation, and self-harm. While these studies did highlight an increase in suicide rates and attempts during the SARS and Ebola crises, the studies were often of low methodological quality and, therefore, it is not possible to draw a firm link between suicide-risk and pandemics.

This is echoed by current research on the COVID-19 pandemic. One living review of the impact of COVID-19 on self-harm and suicide behaviour noted that there “was no consistent evidence of a rise in suicide”. However, these authors also noted evidence of a rise in suicidal ideation among those who test positive for COVID-19 which is concerning.

In conjunction with their systematic review, Dr. Hatcher and colleagues have developed an infographic which highlights what we know about suicide rates and pandemics, what factors might put someone at risk for suicide, and how to manage your mental wellbeing as the COVID-19 pandemic progresses.

As demonstrated by this systematic review, more research is needed on the relationship between suicide and COVID-19. To address this, Dr. Hatcher’s team is currently conducting a cohort study in Eastern Ontario of people comparing the mental health outcomes of those who have tested positive and negative for COVID-19. Preliminary results are expected by the end of this year.

Full reference: Zortea, T. C., Brenna, C. T., Joyce, M., McClelland, H., Tippett, M., Tran, M. M., ... & Platt, S. (2020). The impact of infectious disease-related public health emergencies on suicide, suicidal behavior, and suicidal thoughts. Crisis. 10.1027/0227-5910/a000753

Funding: Scottish Government’s National Suicide Prevention Leadership Group, Health Services Executive National Office for Suicide Prevention Ireland, Health Research Board Ireland, and Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

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Media Contact 
Jenn Ganton