Suicide rates steady despite added stress of coronavirus

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The worry that the coronavirus crisis could lead to an increase in suicides comes straight from the highest levels of government.

During a press conference, President Donald Trump laid out his predictions for a lengthy economic shutdown, suggesting “large numbers of suicides.”

In West Michigan, mental health experts are watching for warning signs and working to make sure that services are available, including to service providers who are seeing the impacts of the virus up close.

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“We do know in past economic downfalls where our suicide rates have gone up,” said Barbara Hawkins Palmer, executive director of Healthy Kent for the Kent County Health Department and facilitator for the Suicide Prevention Coalition.

Hawkins Palmer said suicides tend to increase in the spring, though no one is sure why — whether it is the fact that those in crisis still don’t feel better after the holidays or even if inflammation due to allergies plays a role.

So far, statistics from the Kent and Ottawa County health departments do not show increases in suicides since March 24. In Ottawa County, there was one suicide between March 24 and April 20, the same number as during the same time period in 2018 and 2017. That period did not have any suicides in 2019.

In Kent County, suicides have significantly decreased compared to last year. Between March 24 and April 20, there were five confirmed suicides and two additional suspected, but not yet confirmed. During the same period in 2019, there were 11 suicides. The average for the period is six.

Hawkins Palmer said she hopes it is because efforts from the mental health community are working.

“It’s not in the closet like it used to be,” she said.

The state and national statistics are not available, but there is no indication of a spike in suicides. In Italy, China and South Korea, there are also no reports of increased suicides.

While suicides may not be more frequent, calls for help have increased.

“There are a lot or people who are struggling emotionally. Isolation is not helpful, especially when you’re already struggling with anxiety and depression,” said Maricela Alcala, CEO of Gryphon Place of Kalamazoo, which oversees suicide prevention and 211 outreach for counties in southwest Michigan.

“We’re teaching folks in the community about when to recognize when someone is at risk for suicide. We’re just more aware and I think it’s making a difference,” Hawkins Palmer said. “We have to be very vigilant for our friends and family to be talking to those folks, recognizing if they’ve changed moods and behavior and ask them to talk about it.”

Throughout all of 2019, total suicides in Kent County dropped to 87 from 97 in 2018. Statewide, the rate of suicide in Michigan is higher than the national average.

As long as the pandemic continues, mental health experts say people need to keep an eye on each other.

“I really encourage folks to be watching out for your loved ones, particularly those who are not with anyone,” Hawkings Palmer said. “Ask them directly, how are you feeling, how’s your mental health, are you feeling depressed, are you feeling anxious, is there more that you can talk about?”

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 800.273.8255, or you can call 211 for local resources.