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As Suicides Increase, a Harris Health Expert Calls for More Education on Post Pandemic Effects

HOUSTON (Oct. 18, 2023) — Three years after the COVID-19 pandemic and a notable decline in the pre-pandemic years of 2019 and 2020, a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a 2.6% increase in suicide rates for 2021 and 2022. That brings the total to nearly 50,000 Americans dying of suicide annually. For Asim Shah, MD, chief of psychiatry at Harris Health Ben Taub Hospital, the situation is tragic and requires more education and research on the role the pandemic caused on the increase in suicides.

Shah says the cause of suicide is complicated, but may be a result of depression and other mental health conditions that many in the community have yet to grapple with resulting from the pandemic.

“Hospital admissions of patients with substance abuse and aggressive or agitated behavior have increased since the COVID pandemic," Shah adds, also a professor at the Menninger Department of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine.

There are many factors that can lead to suicide such as socioeconomic status and access to healthcare, which Shah says is where race and ethnicity comes into play. The report indicates an increase among Black or African Americans by 3.6%, Hispanic or Latino by 4.3%, Asian by 5.7% and White by 2.1%.

“You have to ask yourself, 'What is their socioeconomic status? Do they have access to a job to sustain life?'" Shah says. “If not, that can cause depression, hopelessness and other health issues. Access to healthcare is important. Imagine having a severe illness or dealing with chronic pain and no way to treat it. All of those things could cause someone to want to hurt themselves if they don't see any light at the end of the tunnel."

In addition to socioeconomic status and access to healthcare, Shah says that the lack of socialization during the pandemic could also be a factor of suicide, emphasizing that social distancing made it more difficult for people to maintain normalcy during the initial years of COVID.

During the first year, “Social distancing became more of social isolation—staying home, not going out and secluding ourselves from others," he says. “There was also another phenomenon called touch starvation, which happens when you don't get as much physical touch as you need. There was a need to physically distance during the pandemic and that is why I would have preferred we focused on physical distancing versus social distancing. We need socialization to survive."

Though suicide can be a result of mental illness, Shah says that's not always the case.

“It's not fair to always pin suicide on mental illness," he explains. “It can be a complication of depression, bipolar, schizophrenia, borderline personality, or other disorders, but suicide is an impulsive act. For example, if somebody breaks up with a significant other and they are so devastated they want to harm themselves, that is a set of emotions that occurred instantly. It's not depression because if things get better in an hour, they are happy again and everything is good. In order for someone to be clinically diagnosed, they would need to be depressed for two weeks."

Whether impulsive or not, suicide continues to be one of the leading causes of death. Shah says eliminating the stigma about suicide would help lower incidents immensely.  

“Suicide is underreported," he says. “Over a million people are suicide survivors. So many people fail then try to commit suicide again down the line. The number one risk factor of future suicide is previous suicide attempts. Our job is to save them from suicide in the future, and we do that with education."

If you or someone you know needs help, call the national hotline 988 (Suicide and Crisis Lifeline).