Rise in suicides during COVID-19 cause for concern

The local increase in suicidal ideation among young people is particularly concerning.

Increases during the COVID-19 pandemic in suicides, suicide risk factors, calls to a hotline and involuntary commitments have Island County Public Health officials concerned, especially with regard to youth.

Kathryn Clancy, the county’s behavioral health clinical supervisor, presented the Island County Health Board last week an “impact situation report” on suicides during the pandemic.

She noted a “disturbing trend” in both statistics and anecdotal evidence of increased suicidal ideation in the county and particularly among young people. She said the “extended disillusionment phase” of the pandemic is hard on children “because it’s a disaster that doesn’t have a beginning or an end.”

“Each time we have a big spike it’s like returning to the scene of the crime, so to speak,” she said.

It’s a tragic trend that is being repeated across the nation, she said, but is worrisome in Island County because the rates of suicides have been historically higher than both the state and national averages.

Clancy discussed possible strategies for addressing the problem. Prioritizing returning students to school is vital, she said.

“It’s not just the socialization and the learning that is putting kids at risk, it’s the lack of supportive adults in their life,” she said.

The problem is most serious in families that are low-income and have other risk factors. She said many children may not even be attending schools at all, remotely or otherwise.

In Island County, preliminary numbers for 2020 show a death from suicide occurred at a rate of once a month, which is a lot for a small community, Clancy said.

There were nine suicides total in 2018.

When compared to the second half of 2019, the number of 911 calls related to suicide threats or attempts was higher in 2020, the report states.

The overall numbers of people showing up at the WhidbeyHealth emergency room with suicidal ideation was down in 2020, she said, but all ER visitors decreased during the pandemic. Yet suicide-related visits by Island County residents to ERs outside of Whidbey peaked several times in 2020, generating statistical alerts based on a CDC algorithm, according to the report.

The number of people who were involuntarily committed for mental health crises increased precipitously in 2020, compared to the prior year. Under law, a designated crisis responder can have people detained for treatment if it is determined they are a danger to themselves or others.

There were 54 detentions in 2019 and 108 in 2020, the report states.

Clancy said the number of calls to a North Sound crisis hotline increased in 2020 and peaked in November, which was the month with the greatest risk of contracting COVID-19.

Clancy said a Whidbey provider who sees many of the pediatric patients on the island reported an increase in the last four months of 2020 in youth with depression and anxiety, as well as being at risk for suicide.

Public Health officials, Clancy said, are looking at recommendations from the CDC for responding to the crisis beyond resuming in-school learning.

Strategies may include enhancing crisis care and crisis transition. Ensuring in-home safety for “lethal means” is also important, she said, as a significant risk factor for suicide in the county has historically involved access to firearms.