Covid-19 lockdowns didn’t cause an increase in suicides after all

Last year, as then-President Donald Trump railed against Covid-19 lockdowns and called on states to reopen their economies, he claimed the shutdowns would lead to a spike in suicides: “You’re going to lose more people by putting a country into a massive recession or depression. You’re going to lose people. You’re going to have suicides by the thousands.”

But new data suggests that the number of suicides actually decreased in the US last year. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, suicides totaled fewer than 45,000 in 2020, down from about 47,500 in 2019 and more than 48,000 in 2018.

So far, this seems to be true globally. England saw no increase in suicides in the aftermath of lockdowns, Louis Appleby, a researcher on suicide and self-harm at the University of Manchester, wrote for the medical journal BMJ. The same seems to be true in other nations, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Norway, Peru, and Sweden, based on data for the first few months of lockdowns around the globe.

“Our conclusions at this stage, however, should be cautious. These are early findings and may change,” Appleby wrote in BMJ. “Beneath the overall numbers there may be variations between demographic groups or geographical areas. After all, the impact of covid-19 itself has not been uniform across communities.”

Still, the news overall seems good.

Trump wasn’t alone in his concerns. For much of 2020, this was a popular argument among opponents of lockdowns — that the measures would lead to an increase in suicides. Various news articles have echoed the claim in some form, exemplified by the recent New York Times headline, “Suicide and Self-Harm: Bereaved Families Count the Costs of Lockdowns.”

It’s all wrapped up in an argument that lockdowns weren’t worth the costs. As Trump put it, “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF.”

The reality is lockdowns worked to contain the spread of Covid-19, based on studies from Health Affairs, The Lancet, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and others. And experts now widely agree that it was the US’s move to reopen too quickly, fueled in part by Trump’s claims, that made the country one of the worst in the world for Covid-19 deaths.

That’s not to say the lockdowns were costless. The emotional anguish brought by isolation and lack of social contact, as well as the economic calamity of the last year, are both clear examples of the downsides to lockdowns — even if the measures were ultimately worth it in the face of a deadly pandemic.

According to one CDC study, self-reported mental distress increased in the early months of the pandemic (though it’s not clear if lockdowns were the cause).

Another category of “deaths of despair” — drug overdoses — also appeared to increase dramatically last year: The latest data shows there were more than 88,000 overdose deaths in the year through August 2020, up from nearly 70,000 in the same time period of 2019. It’s plausible that lockdowns fueled overdoses as people turned to drugs during isolation or as addiction treatment and harm reduction services closed down, though it’s also possible that the increase was driven by something else, like the continued spread of the dangerous synthetic opioid fentanyl in illicit drug markets.

There’s also genuine debate about how the lockdowns worked. Based on the more recent evidence, it seems like mass closings of schools were ultimately misguided — as children and schools ended up not being major vectors of the coronavirus’s spread. Meanwhile, the risky indoor spaces many states pushed to reopen quickly, like bars and restaurants, have proven to be significant sources of outbreaks. All of that suggests the US may have closed down the wrong places, while reopening the wrong places too.

At the very least, though, it seems lockdowns didn’t produce one of the bad effects people initially feared.

If you or anyone you know in the US is considering suicide or self-harm, or is anxious, depressed, upset, or needs to talk, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255, or text CRISIS to 741741 for free, confidential crisis counseling. Outside the US, the International Association for Suicide Prevention maintains a list of crisis hotlines and their respective phone numbers around the world.

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