National Post (National Edition)
THE COVID-SUICIDE PARADOX
In mid-December, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney mentioned during a press conference that the province's suicide rate appeared to have undergone a dramatic change in 2020. This was encouraging as a sign that some Canadian provincial government is keeping close track of something or other. But, as it happens, the direction of the change was also “down significantly.” In previous years Alberta had counted over 600 suicides, but the year-end data suggested that the figure for the first year of the pandemic was likely to pull up short of 500.
Kenney was almost apologetic about this. “Suicides are down,” the premier said. “I know that, to many, that's not intuitive — it seems contrary.” He went on to express concern that “pent-up anxiety” from COVID-19 and the accompanying lockdowns will manifest as an increase in suicide in 2021.
But the phenomenon isn't counterintuitive at all to experts in the demographics of suicide — who are not, for the most part, the same people at the sharp end, treating suicidality or preventing suicide. Everything about the COVID-19 pandemic is new, and most especially the emergency political measures being used to fight it. It's one giant global experiment, being conducted with different protocols in every corner of the world. It would be hard to be certain in advance what effect it would have on the rate of suicide in any locality.
But few of us, with the exception of the helpless institutionalized elderly, are experiencing privation comparable to that which wars inflict on a civilian population. As far back as Émile Durkheim, sociologists have known that wars typically depress suicide rates (temporarily). For a long time, the trendy theory was that the violence lonely and suffering people might inflict on themselves was being redirected outward at an enemy.
Relief-valve metaphors of this nature haven't held up well, generally, and I consider them one of the banes of our culture. It could just be that in wartime, as in the COVID-19 pandemic, states and their citizens devote more conscious attention to keeping up the common morale and finding everyday survival solutions.
Even the sense that there is such a thing as morale, and that individuals have some minuscule duty to uphold it, is something that comes into sharper focus during a pandemic (it turns out). A hypothetical “pull-together” effect is also seen, though with a less clear signal, in communities that suffer natural disasters. That's what we are all doing right now, in slow motion: living through a natural disaster. Presumptively natural, I mean.
On Monday the excellent CBC Calgary data journalist Robson Fletcher dove into the world of suicidology, taking a step beyond asking suicide hotlines whether they were getting a lot of calls lately (they all are, which might be a good thing). Fletcher found that the dip in 2020 suicides seems to be widespread; there is evidence it has occurred not only in Alberta, but in British Columbia and Saskatchewan as well. Medical examiners in other places that are slower to generate official statistics are not aware of any increase in suicide.
Overdose deaths are up enough to account for the differences if we were to classify them all as suicides, but most can be attributed to accidental poisoning with fentanyl derivatives or, in some cases, Elvis-like polypharmacy habits. Surprisingly few people die from just taking too much heroin and nothing else.
Whether Kenney's speculation about “pent-up anxiety” proves well-grounded, no one can say. The only experience we could hope to consult for a comparison, the Spanish flu of 1918-20, is not very helpful. Although modern statistics existed then, indicators of social health were interacting with the end of a global war that was itself responsible for the pandemic, not to mention the advent of liquor prohibition. It is inherently difficult to sort out.
Our disorder is more like a random visitation of wrath from heaven — a sudden worldwide reassertion of fate's privileges. The 1920s may hint that, as many think, we are headed for an age of hedonism and nihilism. We should already think of ourselves as having passed through something very like a war, a short and terrible one.
But wars have sides, whereas everyone now alive will have COVID-19 in common forever. And that ought to remind us, as it has reminded us of the presence of death, that there is a genuine, compelling sense in which the human race is one. At a minimum, we have learned that Marshall McLuhan's global village is now our home, and there's no escape.
EVERYTHING ABOUT THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC IS NEW.