Early in the coronavirus pandemic, scientists warned that economic lockdowns could cause serious mental health repercussions.
"Secondary consequences of social distancing may increase the risk of suicide," researchers noted in an April 10 paper published by the American Medical Association. "It is important to consider changes in a variety of economic, psycho-social, and health-associated risk factors."
Essentially, researchers warned, forced isolation could prove to be “a perfect storm” for suicide.
Seven months later, new evidence is emerging to suggest these researchers were right.
“Far more Japanese people are dying of suicide, likely exacerbated by the economic and social repercussions of the pandemic, than of the COVID-19 disease itself,” CBS News reports. “While Japan has managed its coronavirus epidemic far better than many nations, keeping deaths below 2,000 nationwide, provisional statistics from the National Police Agency show suicides surged to 2,153 in October alone, marking the fourth straight month of increase.”
For years in Japan, suicides had been on the decline. But the arrival of COVID-19 and strict regulations designed to curb transmission of the virus have changed that trend.
The 2,153 suicides reported last month are about 600 more than the previous year, CBS reports, with the largest gains coming in women, who saw an 80 percent surge in suicide.
"We need to seriously confront reality," said Katsunobu Kato, Japan’s chief government spokesman, adding that new efforts to counsel potential victims are being made.
Unlike Japan, the United States has yet to publish national figures on suicide. But anecdotal evidence suggests the US might be struggling with its own suicide epidemic.
Prior to the arrival of the coronavirus, suicide was the tenth leading cause of death in America, claiming between 42,000 and 49,000 lives annually in recent years. Though we don’t yet know what 2020’s toll will be, surveys show more than half of Americans say they’ve suffered mentally during the pandemic, which has seen the widespread use of lockdowns and social isolation to combat the virus.
Meanwhile, some localities have reported sharp upticks in suicide. These include Dane County, Wisconsin — the second largest county in the Badger State — which saw suicides in young people nearly double so far in 2020, as well John Muir Medical Center, a health care service headquartered in Walnut Creek, California, which in May reported an “unprecedented” surge in suicide.
"We've never seen numbers like this, in such a short period of time," Dr. Michael deBoisblanc told an ABC affiliate. "I mean we've seen a year's worth of suicide attempts in the last four weeks.” (Some studies have shown relatively stable suicide rates, it should be pointed out.)
We don't yet know what the final toll of suicides in the US will be, but the sad truth is the US may very well see an increase similar to that of Japan.
As the researchers cited at the beginning of this article observed in their study, social isolation is closely linked to suicide.
“Leading theories of suicide emphasize the key role that social connections play in suicide prevention. Individuals experiencing suicidal ideation may lack connections to other people and often disconnect from others as suicide risk rises,” the researchers noted. “Suicidal thoughts and behaviors are associated with social isolation and loneliness.”
This is one of the many reasons that sweeping interventions that enforce social distancing are so dangerous. Unfortunately, human connection is nothing that can be achieved through phone calls and Zoom meetings, at least not in the same way. Moreover, an abundance of research shows that suicide is not the only deadly consequence of social isolation.
As The New York Times reported in 2016, social isolation adversely affects human health in myriad ways.
A wave of new research suggests social separation is bad for us. Individuals with less social connection have disrupted sleep patterns, altered immune systems, more inflammation and higher levels of stress hormones. One recent study found that isolation increases the risk of heart disease by 29 percent and stroke by 32 percent.
Another analysis that pooled data from 70 studies and 3.4 million people found that socially isolated individuals had a 30 percent higher risk of dying in the next seven years, and that this effect was largest in middle age.
Loneliness can accelerate cognitive decline in older adults, and isolated individuals are twice as likely to die prematurely as those with more robust social interactions. These effects start early: Socially isolated children have significantly poorer health 20 years later, even after controlling for other factors. All told, loneliness is as important a risk factor for early death as obesity and smoking.
Policy makers who continue to push lockdowns as a serious solution to the coronavirus choose to ignore these realities, the same way we’ve seen the catastrophic economic effects of the lockdowns overlooked.
These unintended consequences are too serious to ignore, however. Lockdowns come with serious costs to mental health and threaten to thrust tens of millions of people into extreme poverty.
Meanwhile, the actual benefits of the lockdowns remain elusive.
It’s time that policymakers owned up to an inconvenient truth: their policies cannot save lives, they can only trade lives, as economist Ant Davies and political scientist James Harrigan noted early in the pandemic.
In times of crisis, people want someone to do something, and don’t want to hear about tradeoffs. This is the breeding ground for grand policies driven by the mantra, “if it saves just one life.” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo invoked the mantra to defend his closure policies. The mantra has echoed across the country from county councils to mayors to school boards to police to clergy as justification for closures, curfews, and enforced social distancing.
Rational people understand this isn’t how the world works. Regardless of whether we acknowledge them, tradeoffs exist.
This is an economic reality. What’s tragic is that the tradeoffs increasingly look worse and worse, despite the refusal of many politicians and experts to acknowledge it.