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Sensemaker audio

A different Covid crisis

A different Covid crisis

There was a real concern at the start of the pandemic that lockdowns would lead to a spike in suicides. But recent figures show an opposite trend. It’s a positive shift, but the question is: why?


Transcript

Hello, I’m Claudia, and this is Sensemaker. 

One story, everyday, to make sense of the world. 

Today, there was a real concern at the start of the pandemic that lockdowns would lead to a spike in suicides. 

But recent figures show an opposite trend. The number of people taking their own life has actually been declining.

It’s a positive shift, but the question is: why?

And just as a warning, I’ll be discussing suicide in this episode. 

***

Jan: I mean the other big pastoral thing at the minute is funerals.

Dave: Yes technically the church is a place of all those markers of life. We think of births and marriages and deaths but what’s it been like during lockdown?

Reverend Jan Gould speaking to Dave Taylor on the Slow Newscast

That’s Reverend Jan Gould speaking on another one of our podcasts, the Slow Newscast, last April. 

She was talking about the rise in the number of funerals in the first lockdown, and how she, and her parish, were coping. 

Over the course of just four months the Reverend had ministered 60 funerals. A third of the deaths were due to Covid19. 

A further 17 of the funerals were deaths by suicide. Before the pandemic, Jan Gould said she would see funerals for just three or four suicides a year.  

Her parish is in Ely, in west Cardiff, one of the most deprived areas in the city. 

In the early days of the pandemic, it was just absolute panic for people that have lost their jobs. And, because of the nature of work, they did either zero hours contracts or agency work, they weren’t qualifying for the furlough scheme. And I think that was the cause of almost all the suicides I did.

Reverend Jan Gould

It was a really distressing time. 

And it left her with a worrying thought: what if this trend continues throughout the pandemic? 

In Ely, things did get better eventually.

The Samaritans saw a BBC News item about our Parish and the suicide rate, so they reached out to us and we started working quite closely together to actually get the word out into the community that there is help out there. And so, actually, I think, once that word started getting out the suicide rate fell quite quickly. And so, then it was no longer really a concern because we knew that people had actually discovered how to access support.

Reverend Jan Gould

The number of funerals for suicides dropped off… 

I would say those 17 that I did, 17 suicides, were in about the first four months of the pandemic and I’ve not had a suicide since.

Reverend Jan Gould

It’s been over a year since we spoke to Jan Gould, we have a lot more information and context now. 

So, what impact has Covid really had on suicide rates?

***

Of course, at the beginning of the pandemic, so much was unknown, and it was logical to think that lockdowns, isolation, health worries and money troubles would mean an increase in people taking their own lives. 

Experts say suicide is a growing concern during the pandemic data showing the volume of calls on the rise and the types of calls even more alarming

41 Action News

In June last year one figure in particular was flying around.

It started with a tweet, which read: “Suicide figures are up 200% since lockdown… Could two friends please copy and repost this tweet?”and it was shared by prominent figures, including Labour MP Dawn Butler, who has since deleted her post. 

But this number – 200% – is false, not least because figures for 2020 were only just published last week.

The Office for National Statistics revealed that there was actually an 18% decrease between April and July 2020 in England and Wales compared to 2019. That drop in numbers is largely due to a fall in male suicide rates specifically.

And it’s not just England and Wales. Reports from Canada, the US and some states in Australia show that suicide rates have declined as well. 

It’s important to point out here that suicide is highly complex and rarely has one trigger. But there is some evidence that shows suicide rates decline during times of national crisis. 

There’s something to be said about the community spirit that kicked into gear early last year, where people were making sure to stay in touch and stay connected.

Reverend Jan Gould certainly noticed this:

I’ve been trying for 15 years to get a pastoral visiting team off the ground, a kind of formalised one. And it never happens, nobody would volunteer. And then, as soon as covid struck, instantly there’s a team of people, they’re wanting to help by delivering a weekly letter or a weekly sermon or whatever just knocking on people’s doors and spending a few minutes on the doorstep chatting.

Reverend Jan Gould

And it’s also important to note that financial support – like the furlough scheme and policy changes that stopped evictions – did a lot to alleviate pressures that would’ve made things a lot worse for people. 

But the impact of covid on suicide rates has been different depending on where in the world you are.

Malawi reported a 52% increase in suicides last year – even though it didn’t have a huge covid outbreak, the pandemic disrupted the economy significantly. 

***

Experts are still trying to figure out exactly what’s going on with these numbers. One doctor has said that it’s simply too early to know what the impact of covid will be on suicide rates in the long term.

And just because the overall numbers show that there’s been a decrease, it doesn’t necessarily mean there won’t be differences when the data is disaggregated. Things might look different depending on race, gender or region, in the same way that it did when we realised that covid19 wasn’t affecting everyone in the same way – it wasn’t the great leveller. 

So what does this story tell us? Well, that at least in the short term, the financial support, the community outreach and the focus on mental health last year may have played a crucial role in protecting the vulnerable when they needed it most.

This story was written by Nimo Omer and produced by Ella Hill.