As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to surge, adding an unprecedented number of infections and deaths on a daily basis around the world, there have been concerns over a looming mental health crisis as a result.

More than 16 million people are reported to have been affected by the new coronavirus infection globally and nearly 650,000 people have lost their lives from the disease that first emerged in Wuhan, China, late last year. However, the ensuing lockdowns imposed by governments restricting the usual movement of people—to offices, markets, educational institutions and so on—has led to a growth in cases of depression, a tendency towards self-harm and suicides among people of all ages.

Read more: Suicidal tendency

Much like the ongoing pandemic that has caused a disruption in the way of life for people all over the world, the financial crisis of 2008 led to similar gloomy outcomes due to a worldwide collapse of stock markets, leading to widespread economic difficulty. A study published in BMJ in 2013 looked at cases of suicide in 54 countries, and reported as many as 4,884 excess suicides in the year 2009 in several European and American countries. There was an average rise in suicides by 4.2% in European countries, and 6.4% in the case of countries in the American continents, primarily owing to the prevailing economic conditions and job stress.

Read more: How to deal with the anxiety of living through a pandemic

Mental health experts, government agencies and authorities from countries across the world are warning of a similar surge now, as people have reduced access to mental health services in addition to more stress and anxiety in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.

Read more: How to protect your mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic

Several studies looking into this phenomenon have looked at different population groups to analyse the effects this pandemic has been having on the mental health of people, and point at a spurt in cases of substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

  1. Causes for rise in cases of self-harm
  2. COVID-19 and mental health in India
  3. Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health

While there can be many reasons for a person’s decision to cause themselves harm, the recent rise in such cases has been due to various factors relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, some of which are:

  • Information overload
  • Job insecurity
  • Social isolation
  • Loss of sense of control
  • Abuse
  • Breakdown of social networks

Instances of these are highlighted in the paragraphs below, citing studies performed in different countries looking into the rise in cases of self-harm around the world.

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An online survey conducted by the Suicide Prevention India Foundation (SPIF) in the month of May—the second month of national lockdown in the country—sought the views of 159 mental health experts who suggested that people who had been recovering from mental health conditions had reported relapses—mental health clinics and services were closed temporarily just when they needed more counselling sessions.

India has the highest suicide rate in the South-East Asian region, according to figures published by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2019, with a rate of 16.5 suicides per 100,000 people in the country, and the third-highest suicide rate in the world among females at 14.7. The WHO went on to add in the report that as many as 800,000 people die by suicide every year in the world.

Read more: Self-care during the pandemic

Several factors have led to this dramatic rise in suicide ideation in addition to the "already prevalent risks related to mental illness, financial insecurity and work-related stress," according to Nelson Vinod Moses, the founder of SPIF. Moses said that a sense of losing control, job uncertainty, abuse, social isolation and the complete breakdown of social networks are among the factors responsible for this rise.

A study published in the Asian Journal of Psychiatry in June looked at two separate incidents of suicide attempts. One by a 52-year-old man who shot himself during quarantine (in case he had contracted COVID-19 after attending a social gathering)—he had developed depressive symptoms during the period of isolation. After being medically stabilised for the gunshot wound, a diagnosis later revealed symptoms of severe depression without psychotic symptoms.

The second case was that of a 40-year-old man who was brought to the emergency room after attempting suicide by hanging. He had been in contact with some people and began having distress over contracting the infection through them—he had isolated himself despite not having any symptoms of the viral infection. Increased exposure to the news and the panic around the COVID-19 pandemic led to anxiety and fear that led to the suicide attempt. However, upon being brought to the emergency room, he was diagnosed with adjustment disorder (situational depression) without psychotic symptoms and stabilised through medication and psychotherapy.

Read more: Mental health tips for those who are self-quarantined

The study concluded that the two suicide attempts following depressive episodes were linked to an overload of COVID-19 information in the media and social media platforms, television channels and other telecommunication platforms fuelling a sense of panic and fear among individuals vulnerable to such exposure. The report called for media platforms to be judicious about spreading information and preventing the spread fear and panic among people.

Another study on self-harm and suicidal behaviour in the United Kingdom due to a disruption in the lives and livelihoods of people, is being performed by experts by screening cases on a daily basis in the country, and has called for a protocol on suicide prevention arising out of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is also in line with the National Health Service (NHS) of the UK expanding their mental health support hotline services for frontline workers, as they added the extra staff to help healthcare workers dealing with signs of PTSD.

In the United States—the country worst-hit by the COVID-19 crisis—an emergency hotline set up by the government reported a staggering 1000% increase in calls by people in emotional distress due to the pandemic. A data tracking poll conducted in the month of March showed that nearly half the people in the country were mentally affected by the pandemic.

Not only adults, but even children and young adolescents have also reported feelings of self-harm and depression, as well as suicide, owing to this burgeoning crisis. This is due to factors such as schools being ordered shut for months, not having the routines they would look forward to, not being able to see friends or perform their favourite outdoor activities or being able to travel.

Read more: Parenting in the time of COVID-19

All these conditions seem to have taken a huge emotional toll on people of all ages, all over the world. The COVID-19 pandemic has not only burdened healthcare systems around the world, but it has also increased burden and emotional strife among people, triggering thoughts of self-harm and suicide. 

Read more: Dr Kamna's tips on how to maintain resilience during the pandemic

It also goes to show that countries all over the world need to focus on the mental health of their citizens and provide them with an outlet to be able to reach out and express their extreme feelings to avoid adding to the already growing list of people affected by the pandemic for a multitude of reasons.

Medicines / Products that contain Reports of self-harm and suicide ideation emerge during COVID-19 pandemic

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