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Suicidal thoughts on a steep rise during Government Imposed Lockdowns

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Research published in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that women, young adults, socially disadvantaged people, and people with pre-existing mental health problems reported the worst mental health outcomes in the first national lockdown.

The study—funded by the Samaritans, the Scottish Association for Mental Health, and the Mindstep Foundation—claims to be the most detailed examination to date of the mental health of UK adults in the weeks after they were instructed to stay at home, on 23 March 2020. Researchers surveyed a national sample of 3077 adults three times from 31 March to 11 May

The study found that the proportion of respondents reporting that on at least one day in the previous week they had wanted to end their life increased from 8.2% to 9.2% and then to 9.8%, over the three waves of the study. These rates were highest in young adults (aged 18-29), rising from 12.5% to 14.4% throughout the three waves.

Contact details for the Samaritans Charity

Rory O’Connor, lead author and chair in health psychology at the University of Glasgow, said, “The findings from our study, showing in particular the increasing rates of suicidal thoughts, especially among young adults, is concerning, and show that we must be vigilant to this at-risk group.”

Across all three blocks of time, one in four respondents (26.1%) experienced moderate to severe levels of depressive symptoms. However, the study found that symptoms of anxiety, levels of defeat, and entrapment decreased over the six weeks of lockdown. Positive wellbeing also increased, while levels of loneliness did not change significantly.

The findings came as an investigation found a sharp rise in reports of sleep problems, eating disorders, and self-harm in under 18. Freedom of information figures showed that prescriptions for sleeping pills for under 18s rose by 30% to 186 000 from March to June 2020, when compared with two years ago. Adult prescriptions for sleeping tablets fell during the same period.

The Samaritans summarised their research throughout lockdown as follows –

What are we seeing through our services?

Throughout lockdown, we have continued to provide support to our callers over half a million times. One in four of these conversations has been with someone who is expressing suicidal thoughts or behaviours.

Common themes where callers express suicidal feelings included callers feeling anxious, isolated, hopeless about the future, trapped (e.g. “not seeing the end to this”), and a sense of loss (including loss of income, routine and social contact, because of lockdown).

We know there are certain factors that are related to suicide risk – and during lockdown, some of these psychological factors came up often in conversations with callers, such as:

  • Negative thoughts about the future

Callers are expressing uncertainty, fear and concerns about what the future holds. These concerns are discussed more frequently as the lockdown goes on, often with additional economic worries (e.g., worry about job loss and missing out on opportunities due to the pandemic).

  • Coping/reduced resilience

Callers are talking to us about a reduced ability to cope as a result of lockdown, with their usual ways of coping (accessing community support, or meeting with friends) having been diminished or unavailable. Concerns about this are reported more frequently and with a greater level of distress as time goes on.

  • Loss

Since the beginning of lockdown, callers’ have expressed a sense of loss in various of ways, from loss of income or routine, to loss of social contact, or mental health support and services. Sometimes, loss is coming from multiple angles all at once, which is particularly difficult for people to cope with.

  • Lacking social support

Unsurprisingly, callers talk to us about reduced access to social support. Not only their family and friends, but also from people like care workers, café workers, and local community groups.

  • Rumination

Some callers have been struggling with the extra time alone and at home. This can lead to ‘overthinking’ or having cyclical thought processes. In some instances, this related to previous traumatic experiences or memories that had re-emerged during lockdown.

  • Burdensomeness

A small number of callers spoke to us about feeling like a burden to families and friends during lockdown. For callers concerned about mental and physical health, not wanting to burden NHS services was one of the most prominent themes.

Coronavirus is disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable people in society and will exacerbate factors we know are related to suicide.

In a survey of over 70,000 adults in the UK:

  • Just over 1 in 10 reported experiencing suicidal thoughts or thoughts of hurting themselves during the first week of lockdown.
  • 2% reported to have self-harmed or attempted suicide during the first week of lockdown.
  • People with a mental health diagnosis have been particularly affected.
  • These findings appear to hold true even as lockdown restrictions are being eased.

Covid-19 is having a profound effect on the economy. We know that in times of recession suicide rates rise. Those who are hardest hit by economic downturn are also those who are at greatest risk of suicide – e.g., middle-aged men (see our report Dying from Inequality.)

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