Suicide is an important issue in bioethics because it is a preventable death that requires effective prevention campaigns and social mobilization to stop this disturbing trend, particularly among young people. We recently published the results of a study from 2001 to 2017 that showed a decrease in firearm-related suicides — the most common means of death by suicide — in the American states where the sale of handguns was restricted (read HERE). Another article with the latest figures for suicide in the US was published in Mental Health Awareness Month (May), where we concluded that “[Suicide] is one of the leading causes of death across all age groups but with a higher incidence in the age group 15 to 29 years” (read HERE).

An article published in the US newspaper The Washington Post (November 23, 2020) addresses this issue and examines figures during the coronavirus crisis. We excerpt the more interesting points from a bioethical perspective, without mentioning the many tragic cases of young people who killed themselves cited in the piece (see HERE).

The article begins with the shocking subtitle, “One in 4 young adults have struggled with suicidal thoughts since the coronavirus hit […]. It reports that, “when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently asked young adults if they had thought about killing themselves in the past 30 days, 1 of 4 said they had”.

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The article continues, “In Arizona’s Pima County, officials have sent two health bulletins alerting doctors and hospitals to spikes in suicides. In Oregon’s Columbia County, the number of suicides by summer had already surpassed last year’s total. In the sprawling Chicago suburbs, DuPage County has reported a 23 percent rise compared with last year. And in the city itself, the number of suicides among African Americans has far surpassed the total for 2019, even as officials struggle to understand whether the deaths are being driven by the pandemic, racial unrest or both. What has shocked medical examiners in Chicago is the age range — from a 57-year-old deputy police chief to a 9-year-old child.”

The author reviews suicide rates in the US, “Even as suicide rates have fallen globally; they have climbed every year in the United States since 1999, increasing 35 percent over the past two decades. Still, funding and prevention efforts have continued to lag far behind all other leading causes of death. Then came the pandemic.”

This moment appears to be especially perilous for young people

According to the author, what makes this moment especially perilous for young people is that their suicide rates were rising faster than any other group in America and some developed countries. “Between 2007 and 2018, suicides increased 56 percent among teens and young adults.” In the US, “[t]he pandemic could accelerate that trend. A federal study on the coronavirus’s mental impact in August found that the youngest people surveyed had the highest rates of increased anxiety, depression, substance use and other mental health problems.”

The article continues with the opinion of a specialist. “‘At that age, you’re looking for your place in the world, searching for your identity,’ said Jonathan Singer, a suicide researcher and president of the American Association of Suicidology. ‘To be stuck in life right now, not able to get a job, not able to plan and see a way forward — to be home and feeling like you’re a burden — it’s challenging.’”

Suicide in coronavirus pandemic in some countries that track suicides

The article criticizes the American public health approach to mental health and suicide prevention and says that “[…] countries that track suicides more closely than America said they are starting to see sharp upticks. Japan said suicides in August increased 15 percent. Nepal has similarly reported increases. Thailand recently said its suicides have risen 22 percent compared with the year before. Thailand’s health ministry has directed police to monitor social media to find people in distress and is setting up a reporting system to get suicide statistics faster. ‘We definitely cannot wait,’ a ministry spokesman said.”

Positive prevention strategy: could save thousands, experts say

The author, in an attempt to find a way to prevent suicide, says, “Large-scale studies found that when hospitals asked emergency room patients if they have had suicidal thoughts and followed up, it cut the risk of suicidal behavior by half. Adding such screening questions during the pandemic — at schools, primary care offices and hospitals — could save thousands, experts say.”

A Bioethics statement is of little value if it is not followed by an action plan

From a bioethical standpoint, it is urgent to study each country’s population with particularly high incidence in teens and young adults, and make a plan of action that includes improved mental health care and follow-up of persons suffering some mental disorders or having suicidal thoughts.