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A tribute to a young women who committed suicide during the pandemic in Liege, Belgium
A tribute to a young women who committed suicide during the pandemic in Liege, Belgium
Anne Sophie Goninet

PARIS — After first reckoning with the physical toll of COVID-19, the world also began to register the risk of rising rates of depression and isolation as the first wave of the virus forced hundreds of millions of people to stay confined at home for months at a time last spring. But now the second wave is raising the stakes, as mental health experts warn about the risk of an uptick in suicide.

Some parts of the world have already been experiencing "waves of suicides' such as Malawi, which reports a 57% increase between January and August in comparison with 2019, or India, as the pandemic put many out of a job and without financial resources. But according to a French study, with a second wave taking its toll on people's hopes and long-term economic effects, the worst is yet to come.

Hopes dashed: In Israel, the emotional first-aid hotline Eran received 837 suicidal calls during the country's second lockdown this autumn, a 49.5% increase compared with the first lockdown.

• While people were more preoccupied with surviving the virus threat during the first lockdown, they're experiencing more "emotional stress' during the second, especially because of the economic crisis; and many who had managed to cope during the first wave felt "their strength dwindled", Dr. Shiri Daniels, Eran's professional director, explained to Haaretz.

• "In the second lockdown we saw more loneliness, more depression and more reports of acute mental distress. The hope that we're coming out of the situation turned out to be an illusion," she told the Israeli newspaper.

• According to the service, the suicide calls stemming from economic distress rose from 4% to 15% between the first and second confinement and calls related to loneliness and personal relations increased from 26% to 35%.

Second wave's first weekend: Englandhas imposed a second national lockdown this November and the impact on suicide prevention hotlines was immediate, with some reporting an increase in calls by almost one-third from the previous weekend, two days after the announcement of the new confinement,ITV Newsreports.

• 80% of callers to Papyrus, a national charity dedicated to the prevention of young suicide, mention the lockdown as well as the fear of isolation, financial problems and the uncertainty over the future as the source of their desperation.

• The charity had to extend its opening hours and increased its staff to answer the rising calls.

Accumulative effect: In France, the Fondation Jean Jaurès conducted a study, led by Michel Debout, a psychiatrist and professor of forensic medicine in Saint-Étienne, to measure the suicidal risks that the two lockdowns imposed by the country this year could generate. According to the report, the suicidal effects caused by crises tend to materialize several months, or even years later.

• After the 1929 stock market crash in the United States, the suicide rate only increased significantly in 1930-31; and for the 2008 financial crisis, European countries observed an uptick only one or two years later.

• "There is always a gap between the economic and social deconstruction and the reactions of the people who are the most affected on the individual and collective level," writes the French psychiatrist.

• It is therefore too soon for now to fully know the effects of the crisis on suicides and suicide attempts of the coronavirus pandemic, but the study reveals that among the French people surveyed who admitted they seriously considered taking their lives at some point this year, 11% of them considered it during the first lockdown and 17% after the end of the confinement, which confirms that "the crisis is ahead of us," the report says.

More prevention needed: Many aid organizations are calling for government actions to avert a looming mental health crisis, with more prevention to encourage people to seek and find help if they're having suicidal thoughts.

• "Everyone is cautiously talking about mental health and the lockdown and careful not to link suicide with lockdowns for fear of copycating. However 75% of people who die by suicide are not even known to mental health services," Ged Flynn, Chief Executive of Papyrus, told The Express. "We have to talk about it sensibly and openly."

• Fondation Jean Jaurès has a similar message, pushing local representatives to integrate suicide prevention in their health policy, with the help of professionals and charities. It also calls for the establishment of a global medico-psycho-social program for the thousands of unemployed, artisans and business leaders, who, according to its study, are more at risk.

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