During the early months of the coronavirus pandemic last spring, experts and doctors worried about the mental health toll of so many losses, from isolation to layoffs and deaths. Some predicted there might be an increase in suicides. Now, in what is believed to be one of the first studies of its kind, Johns Hopkins researchers who examined deaths across Maryland have found evidence of a rise in suicides — and also of the inequities between Blacks and whites.
In the study, published Tuesday in JAMA Psychiatry, the researchers determined that among Black residents, suicide deaths appeared to double the recent historical average in one key period — from March 5, the date Maryland declared a state of emergency and shut down, until May 7, when the first public spaces were reopened. During the same time, scientists found that the suicides among whites appeared to drop by half.
Dr. Paul Nestadt, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Anxiety Disorders Clinic, led the study, which involved researchers from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. They looked at 1,079 deaths by suicide recorded across Maryland from January 2017 until July 7.
“This year, closures, economic impact and the number of people in the African American community who have been on the front lines and have not had the resources for child care, or do not have a job that affords them to work remotely, can cause a lot of stress,” Nestadt said. “I think the bottom line is we are not in the same boat, and we do not have the same economic cushion. Some are feeling these stresses more than others.”
Suicide numbers among Black residents returned to the normal range as restrictions began being lifted, according to the study. Researchers noted while the numbers are small and should be interpreted cautiously, they highlight the importance of identifying high-risk groups early.
The study offers more evidence of COVID-19′s disproportionate impact on the Black community. According to the COVID Tracking Project, Black people are dying of illness caused by the coronavirus at 1.8 times the rate of white people. Black people also are more likely than white people to have essential, front-line jobs and aren’t able to work remotely.
With the number of coronavirus cases continuing to spike, Nestadt said he fears another increase in suicides. On Tuesday, The Sun reported more than 2,400 new COVID cases and 61 more deaths, the most fatalities in one day since May.
“We are entering a bigger peak where COVID rates are four to five times higher,” Nestadt said. “We need to have more financial support in place, if something isn’t done we may see [the increase] again.”
The researchers noted that the decrease in suicides among whites was unexpected. They theorized it may have been because white residents may have had a greater ability to do remote work and because they received greater benefits from government relief programs.
Newly elected Baltimore City Council President Nick Mosby said that COVID has exacerbated the preexisting socioeconomic hardships that many in the Black community face.
“It’s one of the underbellies we don’t talk about,” said Mosby, noting that the loss of jobs, inability to work remotely from home and financial instability are all stressors on mental wellness.
He said even trying to get help during the pandemic has been tough.
“People would have [unemployment] applications in for months, they’d wait to speak with someone on the phone for hours, with no one on the other end to answer, and meanwhile bills continued to pile up,” said Mosby, adding that there is a stigma around mental health issues in the Black community, which has not helped.
He is worried about how difficult things will be this winter.
“This is a tough time. This is the holidays, and people are laid off,” Mosby said.
Mosby said he and others plan to dig deeper into this data and look at other factors including age and gender, so they can target solutions for the city’s most vulnerable residents.
The Rev. Dr. Alvin C. Hathaway, senior pastor of the historic Union Baptist Church in West Baltimore, said COVID is unveiling an unfortunate new normal for many people.
“COVID is saying every day, there is a loss of life, someone is sick in the hospital, and you are potentially the victim to this unseen virus,” Hathaway said.
He added that in this confusing time, people have a lot of questions, but sometimes lack reliable resources — and that can cause despair. He believes the solution is in how people talk to one another.
“We have to be fragile with our language and interactions,” Hathaway said. “How you treat one another during this time is important, you may encounter a victim of trauma and trigger feelings such as ‘No one cares about me.’”
Rates of mental illnesses in African Americans are similar to the general population, but African Americans often receive poorer quality of care and lack access to culturally competent care. According to the American Psychiatric Association, only one in three African Americans who needs mental health care receives it. There are also few Black mental health providers.
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But studies have found there are effective ways to help people who have considered suicide — like getting treatment and support.
Edgar K. Wiggins, who founded and directs Baltimore Crisis Response, a citywide crisis and hotline program, said its workers are seeing the stress from their callers.
“COVID is a beast that is changing life as we know it,” Wiggins said. “You can’t turn on the TV without seeing people who are sick or losing their jobs and are all of a sudden in need of food assistance.”
He added: “To say I’m concerned is an understatement.”
Although the vaccine offers a light at the end of the tunnel, people will need to continue to observe restrictions until the vaccine is widely distributed, Wiggins said. He emphasized that even though it’s trying to be in isolation, people don’t have to endure the stress alone: “There are people who are available and want to talk to you.”
Warning signs of suicide
- Talking about wanting to die
- Talking about being a burden, or feeling trapped
- Acting anxious, agitated or recklessly
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Withdrawing or feeling isolated
What you can to do help
- Do not leave the person alone
- Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects
- Call the Here2Help free, confidential crisis hotline at 410-433-5175.
- Text HELLO to 741741 for free, 24/7, confidential emotional crisis support.
- Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255
Source: Recommendations from consensus statement of public health and international suicide prevention experts led by SAVE
Tatyana Turner is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers Black life and culture. Follow her @tatyanacturner.