Queensland’s suicide rate has not risen amid the coronavirus pandemic, defying expectations, however researchers and mental health workers still worry about a delayed effect and pockets of despair.
- Researchers say COVID-19 may have contributed to at least 36 suspected suicides in Queensland
- Data shows the effects of the pandemic could be delayed
- Experts warn despite the suicide rate not increasing, caution was still needed
The Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention at Queensland’s Griffith University found the state’s suicide rate had remained at about 14 deaths per 100,000, despite the community enduring lockdowns and an economic recession.
Lead researcher Dr Stuart Leske said there had been evidence of suicide increases during the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918 and SARS in Hong Kong in 2003, and it was not clear why there had not been similar trends this time around amongst vulnerable groups.
Although the overall suicide rate was unaffected, Dr Leske said COVID-19 had still contributed to at least 36 suspected suicides in Queensland from February to August.
“It might exacerbate pre-existing risk factors and it might impact both on someone’s employment and their mood,” he said.
The research, which a##lysed data from the interim Queensland Suicide Register, was published in The Lancet Psychiatry this week and was the first to consider seasonality and pre-COVID trends in suicide mortality.
However, other states were also indicating the same trend.
Dr Leske said it was difficult to speculate on why there had not been the rise that politicians and mental health professionals had expected.
He said it was possible that — like after natural disasters — the effects of the pandemic could be delayed.
“When natural disasters happen there is typically a honeymoon period, in that there might be a lower suicide rate, in that people are banding together and there is that will to survive,” he said.
“Obviously, we just don’t have that experience with global pandemics because we don’t have them that often.
“I don’t think we would see changes instantaneously in the suspected suicide rates, it might happen a bit more down the track.
“It may have been that without COVID the suicide rate in Queensland would have been lower, maybe it was going to decrease further and COVID-19 stopped that from happening.”
‘Pockets of variation’
Black Dog Institute associate professor Fiona Shand said the Griffith University results were consistent with data from other countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States and Japan.
She said while there had not been an upward trend, caution was still needed.
Dr Shand said there had been an increase in people accessing mental health and crisis lines, and wait times had also increased.
“In the early days there was that strong sense of social cohesion, of getting through it together, that people weren’t alone in struggling with things like unemployment,” she said.
“Also, being able to see that there might be an end to this, actually helps people to maintain hope.
“[But] we do know that there are pockets of variation.
“There are some regions for example where we think we are seeing some increases, there are probably some groups in the population who are more at risk, perhaps people on lower incomes, people who are more at risk of long-term unemployment.”
Professor Shand said previous evidence from the Global Financial Crisis showed there was a correlation between high unemployment and suicide rates, but other supports can help mitigate the effects.
She said in countries where there was good social welfare support, such as unemployment benefits, the suicide rate had not increased.
“We think that the JobSeeker and the JobKeeper programs [in Australia] have helped and so what we’re advocating for is ongoing attention to those areas,” she said.