COVID-19 and the risk of suicide
During the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, you may experience anxiety, fear, frustration, sadness and loneliness — to the point that those feelings become constant and overwhelming. Existing mental health conditions, including severe anxiety and major depression, may worsen. If you're feeling hopeless and having thoughts about suicide, or you're concerned about someone else, learn how to find help and restore hope.
Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Aug 6, 2020.
Major stressors related to the COVID-19 pandemic
Most often, suicidal thoughts are the result of feeling like you can't cope or recover when you're faced with what seems to be an overwhelming life situation. There's little data yet on the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the suicide rate. But clearly the pandemic has added intense emotional and mental stress to the lives of people around the world. Fear, anxiety and depression can stem from a wide range of concerns and experiences, from personal and family issues to work-related stress.
Personal and family concerns
Situations vary, but personal and family issues may include:
- Fear that you or your loved ones will get COVID-19
- No chance to be with and comfort your loved one who is seriously ill or dying in the hospital
- Grief over the loss of a loved one to COVID-19 or another illness
- Social isolation, especially if you live alone or in a facility where visitors are temporarily not allowed
- Being in close quarters with family under stay-at-home orders, which could increase the risk of spouse, partner or child abuse
- Starting or worsening of alcohol or drug misuse
- Having other mental health disorders, such as major depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder or an anxiety disorder
Depending on the type of job you have, examples of work-related issues include:
- Anxiety due to working in a high-risk environment, such as in a hospital or nursing home, or being a first responder
- Feeling overwhelmed working in crowded health care facilities that treat people with COVID-19, especially in places that may have a shortage of personnel and personal protective equipment
- Feeling burned out and frustrated as a health care worker because you feel that you couldn't do enough for people with COVID-19 who died
- Fear and anxiety about the increased risk of COVID-19 because you're an essential worker, such as a worker in the food or transportation industry, whose job requires serving the public in person
- Worry about or actual loss of a job or business, causing financial hardship
- Worry about how you'll provide basic needs for yourself and your family if you're out of work for an unpredictable amount of time or if you lose your job
Warning signs of suicide
Whether you're having thoughts of suicide or know someone who feels suicidal, learn suicide warning signs and how to reach out for immediate help and professional treatment. You may save a life — your own or someone else's.
Suicide warning signs or suicidal thoughts include:
- Talking about suicide: for example, making statements such as "I'm going to kill myself" or "I wish I were dead"
- Getting the means to take your own life, such as buying a gun or stockpiling pills
- Withdrawing contact with others more than usual, even though staying at home may be recommended during the COVID-19 pandemic: for example, not responding to any type of communication from others, such as calls, texts or other messages
- Having mood swings, such as being emotionally high one day and deeply discouraged the next
- Being preoccupied with death, dying or violence
- Feeling trapped or hopeless about a situation
- Excessively using alcohol or drugs
- Changing your normal routine, including eating or sleeping patterns
- Doing risky or self-destructive things, such as using drugs or driving recklessly
- Giving away belongings or getting affairs in order when there's no other need to do so
- Saying goodbye to people as if they won't be seen again
- Developing personality changes or being severely anxious or agitated
The unique circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, including little social interaction, may make it more challenging to identify those at risk of suicide. Warning signs aren't always obvious, and they may vary from person to person. Some people make their intentions clear, while others keep suicidal thoughts and feelings secret.
Reach out for help
During the COVID-19 pandemic, you can still reach out to others in a safe way and ask for help. Whether it's by phone, text or email or a trusted social media platform, don't be afraid to let others know that you're feeling overwhelmed and need support. At least get the conversation started.
If you think you may hurt yourself or attempt suicide, get help right away by taking one of these actions:
- Contact your doctor or a mental health professional to help you cope with suicidal thoughts.
- Call a mental health crisis number or a suicide hotline. In the U.S., call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 any time of day — press "1" to reach the Veterans Crisis Line or use Lifeline Chat.
- Call 911 or your local emergency number.
- Reach out to a close friend or loved one.
- Contact a minister, spiritual leader or someone else in your faith community.
Even after the immediate crisis passes, seek help to get appropriate treatment for suicidal thoughts and feelings and learn effective coping strategies. Keep a list of resources and numbers readily available. On your list, include contact numbers for your doctors, mental health professionals and crisis centers, as well as trusted friends or loved ones.
When someone else is suicidal
If someone says he or she is thinking of suicide or behaves in a way that makes you think the person may be suicidal, don't play it down or ignore the situation. If you're concerned about a friend or loved one, consider these actions, depending on the situation:
- Offer the person the opportunity to talk about his or her feelings, but keep in mind that it's not your job to substitute for a mental health professional.
- Encourage the person to call a mental health crisis center or suicide hotline.
- Encourage the person to seek professional treatment.
- Urge him or her to find help from a trusted person, support group or faith community.
- Offer to help the person find the necessary assistance and support, including staying with the individual until a safe environment can be arranged.
If someone is posting suicidal messages on social media, many sites such as Facebook or Instagram offer options on how to respond — search the site for "suicide" or "suicide prevention." In urgent situations, in the U.S. call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for help.
During and after the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health issues need more attention to reduce the risk of suicide. Broadly, this means that public and private mental health services and individual providers need to be creative in finding, assessing and treating individuals at risk of suicide. This might include, for example, improving working conditions and providing more mental health services for workers on the front lines, encouraging scheduled breaks and taking time off, offering telehealth counseling, or providing food support and financial aid to those who have lost their jobs.
Individual action is important, too, especially during times when self-isolation and physical distancing are recommended. If you're concerned that someone is or might become depressed or suicidal:
- Check in on a regular basis. Use phone calls, texting, video calls or other methods of messaging if physical distancing is needed — especially if the person has an existing mental health issue.
- Offer to help with basic needs. For example, you might offer to pick up groceries or pharmacy items or connect the person with a delivery service or volunteer organization that can help.
- Point out the importance of a daily routine. For example, suggest getting up and going to bed at the same time every day and having regular mealtimes.
- Encourage physical activity. This might include for example, taking walks regularly, doing stretching exercises or gardening.
- Encourage mental activity. Suggest activities that stimulate the mind. These might include, for example, learning a new skill or hobby by viewing a video online.
- Suggest limiting the time spent reading the news. Negative news may spur anxiety. For updates on COVID-19, go to trusted websites such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Learn the warning signs of suicide. Learning what to watch for can help you determine when and if you need to take action to aid your loved one in getting through a mental health crisis.
You're not responsible for preventing someone from taking his or her own life — but your support and intervention may help the person see that other options are available to stay safe and get treatment.