In last night’s presidential debate, Donald Trump repeated one of his more unorthodox reelection pitches. “People are losing their jobs,” he said. “They’re committing suicide. There’s depression, alcohol, drugs at a level that nobody’s ever seen before.”
It’s strange to hear an incumbent president declare, as an argument in his own favor, that a wave of suicides is occurring under his watch. It’s even stranger given that it’s not true. While Trump has been warning since March that any pandemic lockdowns would lead to “suicides by the thousands,” several studies from abroad have found that when governments imposed such restrictions in the early waves of the pandemic, there was no corresponding increase in these deaths. In fact, suicide rates may even have declined. A preprint study released earlier this week found that the suicide rate in Massachusetts didn’t budge even as that state imposed a strong stay-at-home order in March, April, and May.
“Just because you’re in a stay-at-home situation doesn’t mean people start immediately decompensating,” said Jeremy Faust, an emergency physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the lead author of the Massachusetts study.
Why, then, would Trump insist otherwise? At the outset of the pandemic, before it reached crisis levels in the US, Trump seemed committed to denying its severity, hoping to avoid a market-spooking panic and apparently betting that the virus would take care of itself. When that became untenable, he shifted to the rhetoric of cost-benefit analysis, claiming that measures to mitigate the coronavirus pandemic would cause more harm than they solve—that “the cure cannot be worse than the problem itself,” as he put it once again during Thursday’s debate. In the meantime, a well-publicized study released early in the pandemic did suggest that a spiking unemployment rate would cause a surge in deaths from suicide, drugs, and alcohol.
“Concern for mental health was, in many cases, genuine,” said Faust. “But in others, it’s sort of weaponized. The idea of holding up this specter, this boogeyman, of people dying in droves because they’re staying at home for a few weeks, and that being used to support a narrative that’s essentially arguing for herd immunity: ‘Just go out there, live your life, take your chances, die if you have to, but let’s not stay home and try to beat this thing.’”
The false rising-suicide narrative is also meant to help Trump evade accountability on two fronts, both for the spread of the virus and the reach of its economic consequences. China is to blame for the pandemic (or “the plague,” as he called it during the debate), and Democratic governors are guilty of the lockdowns; either way, Americans are dying—and it’s not his fault.
If it did seem reasonable, at first, to expect the isolation caused by social distancing and business closures would lead to more suicides, there were countervailing forces at play. “Historically, at times of natural disaster and calamity, we actually tend to see a decrease in suicide rates,” said Craig Bryan, a psychologist and director of the suicide prevention program at Ohio State University. “Part of that may reflect a kind of pulling-together effect. People have a shared sense of adversity, so we unite to help each other and come together.” It might also reflect other hidden benefits to spending more time at home, he suggested—things like avoiding stressful commutes and being around family. Declining suicide numbers in Japan, as measured earlier this year, were attributed to pandemic reductions in work hours. (Those rates have since ticked up.)
Bryan published research over the summer finding no link between pandemic-inspired physical distancing measures and suicidal thought or behavior. Suicide attempts were higher, however, for people who reported concerns about life-threatening illness or injury. That’s one reason Bryan worries about the long-term mental health risks of a prolonged, uncontrolled pandemic. He listed off several other risk factors: extended unemployment, lack of health insurance, fear of the unknown. “As this failed response at a national level persists over time, this initial positive finding, so to speak, may not last,” he said.