I am going to write about something today that is often difficult to talk about and highly sensitive. Did you read about the modelling, conducted by Sydney University’s Brain and Mind Centre, suggesting suicides could rise by up to 50 per cent due to the economic and social impacts of Covid-19? The centre says the COVID-19 crisis could cause up to 750 extra suicides a year, if the unemployment rate was around 11 per cent.
I’ve read previously that suicide numbers in communities hit by catastrophes (including bushfires and floods) usually don’t peak until three months to five years after the initial disaster.
If you look at the evidence that’s come out over the last 50 years after natural disasters, wars and other pandemics, you don’t always see rises in suicide and self-harm during the actual period of the disaster, because there are many protective factors that come into play.
People come together, there is connectiveness, people have got focus and you are working together to manage a major event.
Mental health problems, suicide and depression tended to increase in the months or even years after a negative event, as people became unwell gradually – hence it is crucial that government and communities put supports in place now to help people through the challenges of coming months and years.
A couple of years ago there was a suicide cluster in Grafton [in northern NSW] that began five to six years after a huge employer left the town – a prison closed.
Nothing took its place in the economy, so you had parents leaving town to look for work, particularly fathers. No enterprise or employer took the prison's place and created new jobs, so people had to leave the town in search of work
In hindsight we can see all the factors that contributed to that cluster of suicides.
It is impossible to forecast when or even if the fall-out of the Corona pandemic will affect suicide rates around the world.
It’s impossible to predict because this is unprecedented. It will depend on the longevity of the closedown and long-term unemployment, and it will link to other factors such as the response of health systems to this event. Also if we have second and third waves of infection that will also impact the rate.
The two main variables that will impact suicide rates in Australia are the financial consequences of the pandemic and the disruption to family relationships.
The most vulnerable people are going to be those with a history of mental illness, who are marginalised already, who are homeless already, who have no capacity to manage economically.
Middle-aged men who lose incomes and marriages during the pandemic would also be susceptible to poor mental health, and care programs need to be rolled out now.
To date Australia had been on the front-foot responding to both the pandemic and the mental health repercussions.
Some NSW and Victorian regional communities are already in later stages of trauma following the drought then bushfires and now Corona. They are experiencing compounding stresses and the first wave of suicides and self-harm could be there.
Beyond Blue and Lifeline have both experienced a surge in calls for help since the outbreak of Covid-19.
In the United Kingdom, the government has set up a national suicide prevention advisory group to address risks Covid-19 could present to vulnerable people. Chair of the group, Prof Louis Appleby, said the plan was centred around quicker access to data on suicides and self-harm episodes, the strongest indicator of suicide risk.
Regional suicide prevention registers already exist in regional areas of Britain, and in Australia most states are looking to establish registers similar to the ones that already exist in Queensland and Victoria.
New South Wales does not have a suicide register but the number of deaths for March was slightly down compared to last year – 4,210 in March, 2020, compared to 4,401 in 2019. This could indicate that people are less likely to die if at home in isolation. In April only around 100 laboratory-confirmed influenza infections were reported in Australia, compared to the 18,377 recorded for April last year.
If you are struggling I urge you to talk to someone – your spouse, a friend, a doctor or a phone support service like Beyond Blue or LifeLine.
I know how it feels to hit rock bottom. I had a time in my life when I made big mistakes and thought there was no coming back, no way out of the darkness. I could not see how I was going to find a way out, but you know something? I did, and today I’m happy. I have a great home and a great relationship. Always remember that it’s darkest right before the sun rises.
Not so long ago I was talking to a Vietnam veteran who for decades was haunted by what he saw in the battlefield. He had mental health problems, his marriage was under stress and he couldn’t imagine ever finding a place in our community that made him happy. He saw a psychiatrist for years, and eventually somehow turned his life around. What I find amazing about him today is that he says he would not change one thing about his past. This man has truly been through hell and back in Vietnam, and yet he can now value the good and the bad, and be grateful for everything he has experienced. Isn’t that amazing – no bitterness, no regrets. What a way to live! Do you think we will ever get to a point in our lives when we are grateful to have lived through this pandemic? When we will actually be glad that it arrived and prompted us to restructure our lives and think about our future. I know there are people out there who have lost businesses and careers, and can’t see a way forward. But please stay strong, keep going, and I know you will find happiness again. Always remember that you are so much more than your work or even your main relationship. Revisit some hobbies from your youth – woodwork, gardening, jogging, anything! Start painting, writing, sewing – do something creative, especially if you are mourning the loss of your old life. Remember that you still have talents and strengths – tap into those.
My thoughts and best wishes are with you, but if you need help reach out to someone. Be courageous and reach out – that’s not weakness, it’s strength. Take care my friends.
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