COVID-19's impact could include 20 more firearm suicides per day this year, analysis shows

Unemployment can cause "emotional mental health issues," a psychologist says.

July 7, 2020, 8:00 AM

COVID-19 could bring a 20-30% increase in firearm suicides this year, a new study has found.

The uncertainty brought on by the pandemic has been impacting people's mental health and increasing feelings of anxiety and depression. The pandemic has also led to increases in gun purchases with an estimated 1.9 million additional guns sold during March and April 2020 compared to the same time period last year. Having access to a firearm in the home triples the risk of death by suicide.

Now, a new study finds that the economic downturn caused by COVID-19 could cause about 20 more lives lost per day by suicide, this year alone.

The study comes from the research arm of Everytown for Gun Safety, a non profit organization which advocates for gun control. Researchers at Everytown looked back at prior crises that led to massive unemployment, including the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Great Recession that ended in 2010.

The Great Recession, for example, led to an estimated 4,750 additional deaths by suicide -- though not all specifically by firearms. Based on Everytown's research of the impacts of unemployment on suicide from past recessions, the researchers estimate this economic downturn could lead to a 20 to 30% increase in the number of lives lost to suicide in the United States in 2020: an additional 5,000 to 7,000 lives.

"We know with unemployment brings all sorts of financial hardships that lead to emotional mental health issues," said Dr. Jeff Gardere, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York City.

"Our unemployment rates will most likely lead to more mental health issues, which will most likely lead to higher suicide rates, especially to people with pre-existing mental health histories and preexisting suicidality," Gardere said.

Experts emphasized that the Everytown analysis is only an estimate, and there's no way to know for sure if history will repeat itself.

"Similarities to prior eras may provide some insights into what to expect, but history does not always dictate the future," said Dr. Jack Rozel, a psychiatrist and professor of law at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Western Psychiatric Hospital.

"It is worth noting that in the years of 1918-1920 (i.e., the years of peak mortality for the last major flu pandemic), the suicide rate went down," Rozel said.

Given the increase in firearm purchases during the pandemic and the increase in feelings of anxiety and depression, estimates like this one can help doctors and policy makers prepare for what might happen in the near future.

"While this link is not surprising, the quantification of impact provides a more meaningful assessment to help drive policy and prevention efforts," said ABC News contributor Dr. John Brownstein, the chief innovation officer for the Boston Children's Hospital and a professor of epidemiology at Harvard Medical School.

According to Brownstein, the study authors didn't account for the role social isolation might play in suicide risk, so these figures might even be an underestimate.

Everytown researchers said public health experts should take steps to minimize the risk of suicide, including encouraging secure storage practices, advertising crisis support resources and informing gun owners about the risks of firearms in the home.

In the coming months and years, medical professionals are likely to play an important role in ensuring that people have access to mental health and medical and suicide prevention services, according to Everytown.

Thankfully, experts say positive coping skills can help people make it through difficult times.

PHOTO: This handout illustration image taken with a scanning electron microscope shows SARS-CoV-2 (yellow)also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19isolated emerging from the surface of cells (blue/pink) cultured in the lab.
This handout illustration image taken with a scanning electron microscope shows SARS-CoV-2 (yellow)also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19 isolated emerging from the surface of cells (blue/pink) cultured in the lab.
Handout/National Institutes of Health/AFP via Getty Images

"Suicide is preventable and there are effective measures that can be taken to reduce those risks for gun owners," Rozel said. Positive coping skills like resting, eating balanced foods and importantly prioritizing exercising (as simple as walking 30 minutes a day) can boost endorphins to help improve mood.

And experts said it's important to remember that even small gestures can make a big difference for someone experiencing suicidal thoughts.

A friend, family member or even acquaintance are only a phone call, or nowadays, a Zoom call away. Now is a great time to stay in touch and strengthen our social groups and connections, given that there's fewer things distract us from our loved ones. Connection is key.

Health care professionals are also here to help and provide resources to manage these common emotions. "It's important that we stay connected to our providers," Gardere said. "Follow the protocol that physicians give us and follow the side effects. Stay connected with your clinician and get consistent care."

The clinician can also, with the patient's permission, include family and friends to have a network of people to work with them.

"We may not know how bad the mental health crisis will be from COVID-19, but we know that there are effective resources and strategies that can mitigate that impact," Rozel said.

If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide, or worried about a friend or loved one, help is available. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 [TALK] for free confidential emotional support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Even if it feels like it, you are not alone.Alexis E. Carrington, M.D. is currently a Dermatology Research Fellow at the University of California, Davis in Sacramento, CA, and a contributor to the ABC News Medical Unit.