Roger Brubaker, Suicide Prevention and Mental Health Promotion Coordinator for Lane County Public Health, said that there has not been an uptick in suicide deaths and there are options available for those who are struggling. Photo Provided

Suicide is a serious public health issue in the US, Oregon and particularly here in Lane County. The rate of suicide in our county has been roughly 50 percent greater than the national average since 2015. In 2019 alone, 106 people died– the greatest number of deaths our county has ever seen. 

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, people have been concerned that social distancing and other prevention measures could limit vital social connections leading to an increased suicide rate. In fact, numerous public figures have said, without evidence, that this indeed will or has happened. And early research provided some support for this. Last summer, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that since the beginning of the pandemic, depression, anxiety and serious thoughts of suicide increased for both youth and adults in the U.S. Further research by the CDC has described a staggering spike in unintentional or indeterminate overdose deaths in the U.S. since the beginning of the pandemic as well. 

However new data recently released by the CDC demonstrates that 44,834 people died by suicide in 2020 compared with 47,511 in 2019. Here in Lane County, data released by the Oregon Health Authority demonstrates that in 2020, 86 people died by suicide in Lane County – 20 less deaths than the previous year. Overall, the state of Oregon saw a similar reduction in 2020 with 809 suicide deaths versus 908 in 2019. This local reduction in mortality seems to be fitting an emerging decline in the suicide rate in the U.S. In 2019, the U.S. saw its first significant drop in the suicide rate in nearly 20 years. 

Although current trends may not indicate future ones and these Oregon data are preliminary, this apparent decline in suicides appears to be consistent with other states’ preliminary numbers throughout the country for 2020. In contrast to the myths voiced by public figures, previous research demonstrates that suicide rates tend to go down during times of national crisis such as war, terrorist attacks and other natural and manmade disasters. The data actually suggests that the most reliable predictor of an increase in the suicide rate is a protracted downturn in the economy followed by higher rates of unemployment. For example, during the Great Depression and the 2008 financial crisis, the suicide rate rose significantly as people of all socio-economic levels lost their homes, jobs and finally their sense of purpose and meaning. While the Covid-19 pandemic has negatively affected our economy, the unemployment rate continues to decline after an abrupt spike this past spring and is currently below the levels seen during the height of 2008 financial crisis. 

These data matter because of the way we talk about suicide and the decisions we make based on the prediction of suicide. Suicide is often described as a personal choice, a tragedy, an unknowable matter of the heart. It can equally be described dispassionately at the population level as an outcome of the composition of our society and its economic structure. When I look at these data, I see in them evidence that we must not rely on the assumed fears of public figures as signals of risk. Instead, we must develop a more permanent compassion for people in distress as forces beyond their control, such as the economy, impact the way they live, their well-being and access to opportunities. History shows that the long-term decisions we make about the structure of our economy matter more for our health and our existence than the temporary restrictions we are currently experiencing.