Mental health impact of pandemic will be profound and felt for years to come

There was a rise of 33.5 percent in suicide deaths between 2019 and 2020 according to a recently published research paper on suicide by the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The graph below shows that there were 263 suicides in 2020 compared to 197 in 2019.

This provisional data, which was released by the NI Statistics and Research Agency, could indicate a significant rise in suicide deaths since the start of the pandemic.

This conflicts with a statement from the Health Minister in NI, Robin Swann, last March that “suicide rates have not shown any increase during the pandemic period. I want to reassure people that services continue to be available for anyone in distress and despair.”

However, the paper also states that “given the delays in registration processes, not all deaths in 2020 will have occurred within the pandemic period”.

It also advised that it may be some time before a “more complete picture” emerges.

Nevertheless, the increased mental health burden associated with the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to be “profound and felt for many years” it says.

The paper outlines the restrictive measures put in place during the pandemic coupled with “loneliness, job and income loss, bereavement, and the direct and indirect impacts of Covid-19” as being the main cause of increased levels of anxiety and mental health problems last year.

The pandemic has also been shown to affect subsections of the population differently.

According to the Interim Mental Health Champion in NI, Siobhan O’Neill, during a Health Committee meeting last March, frontline workers, people with existing mental and physical illness, women, people with fewer social and economic resources and people hospitalised by Covid-19 or suffering from post-infection are just some of the at-risk groups.

“They are the groups who, traditionally, are the powerless groups: people who have been carrying the burden of multiple roles and have a history of trauma and discrimination,” she said.

There is also “emerging” evidence to suggest that the mental health of younger people in particular has been disproportionately affected according to the paper.

For instance, a UK-wide study of mental health and well-being during the Covid-19 pandemic suggests that this group has experienced an increase in suicidal thoughts since the pandemic began.

On suicide, the research paper produced by the NI Assembly stated that the circumstances which may lead a person to take their own life were “complex and unique”.

It also said that there should be caution in conflating poor mental health and suicide risk.

This is because whilst mental illness, such as depression, underlies many suicides, “a complex interplay of stressful personal, social or economic problems can [also] lead to” thoughts of suicide; something of which we have no shortage of in the pandemic.

The ongoing surge of redundancies, losses and restrictions has put pressure on healthcare services as an increasing number of people now require a collaboration of specialist services to cope with these upsets.

For a number of years, NI has been reported as having a higher suicide rate than the rest of the UK.

However, a review of all drug-related deaths between 2015 and 2018, which were previously recorded as suicide, found that some of these deaths were accidental.

It is being carried out by the statistics agency, Nisra, and the Coroners’ Service.

Once complete, it is expected that this review will see a drop in the suicide rate for each of those years of between 20 and 30 percent.

Provisional figures for 2019 show there were 197 suicides, compared to 307 in 2018 – a drop of more than a third.

Figures from the NI Assembly paper show that NI is now in line with other parts of the UK in terms of its suicide rate with Scotland being in the lead, as shown in the above graph.

That rate is climbing, however, as we enter our second year of the pandemic and major factors that have an impact on suicide risk, such as unemployment, social isolation and trauma are rife.

Suicide is preventable though, the paper advises, and there are many types of support services that exist.

Yet it is said that around 70 percent of people who die by suicide in NI were not previously known to mental health services.

Spending on mental health services in NI also continues to be an issue, as the paper uncovered that NI spends the least amount on these services in the whole of the UK and Ireland.

The paper also warns that “funding constraints remain a significant challenge” to the implementation of Protect Life 2 – the suicide prevention strategy for NI.

“Suicide has a devastating impact on families, communities and society as a whole,” the paper concludes.

“Yet with timely and appropriate support, people can get through a suicidal crisis and recover.”

If you have been affected by any of the issues in this article you should contact Samaritans or Lifeline, or reach out to a trusted family member or friend. Talking saves lives.