Michigan study warns of suicide spike amid COVID-19

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

The coronavirus pandemic could lead to a spike in suicides among Michigan residents whose mental health is being affected by the crisis, a health group warned in a study released Monday.

COVID-19 testing begins at the Michigan State Fairgrounds begins on Friday, March 27, 2020.

The study from Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services, based in Grand Rapids, predicts a 32% increase in suicides due to job loss, stress related to a loss of a loved one, or isolation and loneliness due to required social distancing practices.

With the state seeing more than 3,400 deaths from COVID-19 as of Monday, Pine Rest experts are pushing for an increase "in public awareness of the availability of services and the importance of seeking these services now before mental health and substance use disorder issues escalate," the report states.

"We decided to dive in and say, how do we prepare as a behavioral health system and how can we prepare as a state for what might be coming based on the kind of clues ahead," said Mark Eastburg, Pine Rest president and chief executive officer.

Eastburg said his group doesn't have current data on suicides and how they're related to COVID-19 but looked at other viruses in other countries and how they affected people. Studies out of China related to the pandemic "describe an uptick of depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress and in some cases suicide and difficulty returning to work."

Eastburg said from a behavioral health perspective, it was worth having a discussion and studying "what can we learn from past experiences that can give us a sense of what might be coming."

Scott Halstead, the vice president for outpatient and recovery services for Pine Rest, said "for us, this is really the perfect soup of high stress sorts of circumstances" given the coronavirus and the high rates of unemployment and isolation that have followed.

"When people are wondering how they are going to pay their rent this month, those are big deals," he said. "You've got financial problems. You've got just fear, so people are under a great deal of stress. They might feel helpless, powerless to make any changes in their circumstances. They may have loved ones who are sick or who are at high risk."

Pine Rest officials said they run the fourth largest behavioral health provider in the country.

Eastburg said studies have shown that for every 1% increase in unemployment, you see a 1 to 1.3% increase in suicide rates — something that was seen in the economic downturn in 2008 in Michigan, he said.

"We actually hope our report is wrong. We hope that the surge of mental health concerns is not as great as some of our models would be predicting," Eastburg said. "But we think it's best to be prepared and best mobilize whatever resources we can right now."


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