Suicide in America Declined During the Pandemic

Suicide in the United States has been on the rise for several years, becoming one of the top public health crises in the country and one that impacts Americans of all ages.  From 1999 to 2018, the number and rate of suicide increased 35%.  Suicide has frequently been among the ten leading causes of death in the country, ranking 10th as recently as 2019. 

Some of the trends in suicide may seem surprising.  For example, there has long been a belief that suicides peak during the holiday season.  But the data show that is not the case.  Over nearly two decades, December regularly has been the month with the second fewest number of suicides.  February, a shorter month, is the only month with fewer suicides.  Generally, it is the summer months in which the number of suicides peak each year.

When the pandemic struck in 2020, there was a record increase in the homicide rate and a continued spike in the number of drug overdose deaths in the country (as well as nearly 400,000 COVID-related deaths in the United States).  Many assumed suicide would also increase, particularly after the number of suicides had risen every year between 2004 and 2019.

But after a 2% decline in suicide from 2018 to 2019, there was another decline in the pandemic year of 2020.  Provisional data show the number of suicides declined 3% from 47,511 suicides in 2019 to 45,855 in 2020.  The suicide rate in the United States also declined 3% from 13.9 suicides per 100,000 in 2019 to 13.5 per 100,000 in 2020.  With COVID-19 now entrenched as the third leading cause of death in the country, suicide fell out of the top ten in 2020, dropping to 11th among leading killers. 

While the 2020 decline was surprising to some in public health, it is worth noting that the 2020 number and rate of suicide are still higher than any year in history, except for the period 2017-2019. 

These data are featured in a new report, “Provisional Numbers and Rates of Suicide by Month and Demographic Characteristics: United States: 2020,” released on November 3.  The new report documents that:

  • The monthly number of suicides was lower in 2020 than in 2019 in March through October and also in December.
  • The number of suicides were higher in January and February of 2020 than the previous year.  This period was just before the pandemic led to widespread lockdowns and business closures in March of 2020.
  • The largest percentage difference between monthly numbers for 2019 and 2020 occurred in April.  The provisional number in April 2020 (3,468) was 14% lower than in April 2019 (4,029).
  • Yet, April 2020 was also the month of the first spike in COVID-19 deaths in the country.

 Other findings in the new report:

  • The suicide rate was 2% lower in 2020 than in 2019 for males and 8% lower for females.
  • Suicide rates declined for females in all race and Hispanic-origin groups between 2019 and 2020, although only the 10% decline for non-Hispanic white females was significant.
  • Rates declined for non-Hispanic white and non-Hispanic Asian males but increased for non-Hispanic black, non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native, and Hispanic males.
  • The 3% decline for non-Hispanic white males and the 5% increase for Hispanic males was significant. 

Final suicide data for 2020 are expected to be available in December of this year, along with other final 2020 data for causes of death in the country.

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