TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — The number of suicides in the U.S. increased over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. In teenagers and millennials, the rates went up higher than any other demographic. Additionally, more males committed suicide than females, by a significantly higher rate.
From the end of 2019 to the middle of 2021, where provisional data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is available, the only age groups where suicide rates did not increase were ages 5 to 14 and ages 75 or older.
In Florida, the rate has grown faster than the rest of the nation, after dropping faster than the U.S. the year before.
For teenagers, millennials and really every other demographic, the rate of suicides crept upward in 2021. This was a change from 2020, where suicide rates decreased across the nation.
Americans aged 15 to 24 committed suicide more frequently, a 0.5% increase. For 25 to 34-year-olds, the rate went up 0.4%. Generally, the national suicide rates went up 0.1%, but the overall increases varied by state.
In 2020, Florida’s suicide rates decreased by 9%, as the pandemic started and vaccinations became available. Nationally, in the same period, suicides decreased about 6% overall. Data from the CDC’s Wonder database showed 45,979 suicides occurred in 2020, or 14 per 100,000 Americans.
In the CDC’s National Vital Statistics System, data through 2021’s second quarter showed the number of suicides in Florida had increased during the pandemic. While the rates dropped from a rate of 14 in 2020 Q3 to 12.3 in Q4, the number of suicides started to rise again in the beginning of 2021. As of 2021 Q2, the suicide rate in Florida is almost back to where it was before the drop, now recorded at 13.8 per 100,000 residents.
Age-adjusted, the CDC reported 13.6 of every 100,000 Americans and 13.6 per 100,000 Floridians committed suicide in the first half of 2021. Age-adjusted death rates in this case refer to suicides of those aged 5 or older. Data was not reported for children aged 1 to 4-years-old.
According to the statistics provided by the CDC, more males commit suicide than females, and the gap is large. While only 5.6 per 100,000 American females committed suicide in 2021 Q2, 22.1 males did. Going back to 2019 Q4, the CDC data showed 6 per 100,000 female Americans committed suicide compared to 22.4 per 100,000 males.
Nationally, the latest CDC morbidity and mortality report showed that while COVID-19 had been the third most common underlying or contributing cause of deaths in the U.S. in 2021, “Suicide…was the tenth leading cause in 2021.” Only cancer and heart disease deaths surpassed COVID-19 for mortality in America, according to the CDC.
The prevalence of mental health conditions also rose during the pandemic. Research from the American Foundation For Suicide Prevention does find a link between risk of suicide and having a mental health condition, the organization said most people with mental health conditions do not commit suicide.
Still, the link becomes important as more Americans are diagnosed with a variety of mental health conditions or illnesses. The number of those diagnoses went up during the pandemic, according to the CDC. The amount of mental health conditions impacting American youths was enough of an issue to earn a mental health advisory from U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy.
In the advisory, Murthy noted that “Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health challenges were the leading cause of disability and poor life outcomes in young people, with up to 1 in 5 children ages 3 to 17 in the US with a reported mental, emotional, developmental, or behavioral disorder.”
The report also said “Since the pandemic began, rates of psychological distress among young people, including symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders, have increased.”
New data from the CDC says that in 2020, the number of “mental health-related visits increased by 24% among U.S. children aged 5–11 years and 31% among adolescents aged 12–17 years, compared” to 2019. Beginning in January 2022, the CDC report said mental health condition-related visits to emergency departments had increased. Specifically, “weekly visits increased” for “five of nine MHCs during January 2022 (anxiety, trauma and stressor-related disorders, eating disorders, tic disorders, and OCD), and overall MHC visits during January 2022, compared with 2019.” Adolescent females had the largest increase in those visits, according to the CDC.
The Florida Department of Children and Families is among the many state agencies who have prioritized suicide prevention as a public health priority. The 2021 report from the state’s Suicide Prevention Coordinating Council, a part of DCF that focuses on suicide prevention, said for every suicide death, about 25 individuals attempt suicide. That number grows dramatically for youths, according to the report.
“For every suicide death, many more individuals attempt suicide or have thoughts of suicide. It is estimated that for every one death, 25 individuals attempt suicide,” SPCC reported. “For those under the age of 15, it is estimated for every one death by suicide 100–200 attempts occur, and for older adults, it is an estimated one death to four attempts ratio.”
The report said “females attempt suicide more often than males, with an estimated three attempts by a female for every one attempt by a male.” Despite more attempts by females, the state reported “Floridian males have more than three times the rate of suicide deaths.” More suicides occur among white males than any other demographic, according to the Florida Department of Health Bureau of Vital Statistics. The majority of those deaths involved firearms.
Florida also acknowledges, in their own reports on suicide, that members of the LGBTQ+ community experience more difficulties.
“While sharing similar experiences as their heterosexual peers, Florida youth of diverse genders and sexualities have heighted experiences of suicidal thoughts, plans, and attempts, bullying at school, and teasing or name calling because of their gender expression and/or sexual orientation,” SPCC reported.
Perhaps one of the biggest causes for the change during COVID was isolation.
A study by health insurer Cigna reported in 2020 that “Pervasive loneliness has widespread effects and is strongly linked to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.” Their study found three of every five Americans were lonely in 2020, up 13% from a previous study in 2018. However, their data was analyzed before the COVID-19 pandemic began, in January 2020. The pandemic began in March.
Suicide among the young has continued to be a concern for medical associations, lawmakers and community organizations.
Florida First Lady Casey DeSantis has made mental health treatment and advocacy a priority during Gov. Ron DeSantis’ time in office. Previous commentary by Florida’s governor made it clear that he believes the isolation period at the start of the pandemic dramatically impacted children in schools, due to being stuck at home. It was one of the main reasons he, and his allies in the legislature, pushed to reopen the state.
In St. Petersburg in early 2021, the governor and his political allies in the Florida Legislature referred to higher risk of suicide during the pandemic. During the event, DeSantis signed an executive order that effectively ended all local COVID restrictions. Later, the state passed legislation to make that change more permanent.
The Children’s Hospital Association “sounded the alarm” on what they called a national mental health emergency in November 2021. The organization said prioritizing mental health for the young had gotten more crucial during the COVID-19 pandemic’s upheavals.
“Children’s mental health is suffering. Young people have endured so much throughout this pandemic and while much of the attention is often placed on its physical health consequences, we cannot overlook the escalating mental health crisis facing our patients,” said AAP President Lee Savio Beers, MD, FAAP. “We must treat this mental health crisis like the emergency it is, which is why AAP is joining CHA and AACAP in sounding the alarm.”
If you or someone you love is battling depression or thoughts of suicide, help is always available by calling the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay at 211 or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).