A forecasted surge in suicide rates due to the impacts of COVID-19, its associated restrictions and their secondary social, economic and personal consequences is not inevitable according to the President of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, Associate Professor John Allan.
‘We know the pandemic is giving rise to anxiety and distress and will continue to have many unintended and far-reaching impacts on psychological wellbeing through loss and trauma, social isolation, alcohol and substance use, economic and personal financial stress, and family breakdown and violence.
‘It is clear that we are facing uncertain times with respect to suicide – the mix of these factors creates a perfect storm for a potential increase in suicides, especially for vulnerable members of our community such as young people and Māori.
‘But this does not have to be the case, just as we’ve seen successful action taken by governments to suppress the spread of the virus, there are choices available to decision makers which will effectively reduce the rates of suicide.
‘Telehealth has shown us, for example, that we can fundamentally alter the way a health system operates to provide consultations in a wider range of circumstances; across more of the country and to meet the needs of a greater number of people, many of whom have not previously had access to mental health services.’
The RANZCP President emphasised that implementing evidence-based interventions can protect the mental health of the population through the pandemic and the economic consequences of these events, and noted the important role of psychiatrists in an all-of-community approach to preventing suicide.
‘Suicide prevention requires a comprehensive approach that spans systems, organisations and environments, combining intervention and support.
‘This should include efforts to systematically reduce societal inequalities, and target the population groups that are adversely affected by the secondary economic and social impacts of COVID-19.
‘Suicide is a complex issue, but decisive, research-informed and targeted government action in the right places does make a difference, just as we have seen with actions taken to contain the spread of the virus.
‘Psychiatrists have a deep understanding of suicide and its causes and are well positioned to ensure the design and implementation of policy, programs, training and services targeting suicidal ideation and behaviour will work, and will have measurable community benefits.
‘Timely and effective support for people with mental illness is an integral element of suicide prevention, for example crisis mental health care should be easily accessible 24 hours per day, 7 days a week for everyone in need.
‘It is also necessary that training of frontline health and community workers include suicide prevention strategies and competencies relating to mental health and suicide.
The RANZCP acknowledges that the Office of Suicide Prevention is alert to the seriousness of this issue and we look forward to working together on suicide prevention strategies and service planning efforts to reduce suicide.