RIVERSIDE COUNTY, CA — Despite some claims that suicides have increased due to California's public health orders amid the coronavirus pandemic, Riverside County data show the rates have actually declined, but the reasons why are not completely clear.
From April 2020 through November 2020, suicides have decreased by 27 percent in the county compared to the same period in 2019, according to figures provided by Riverside University Health System - Public Health.
"No matter how we look at the data," there is no evidence to suggest the pandemic caused a spike in suicides, according to Wendy Hetherington, chief of epidemiology at RUHS-PH.
Hetherington cautioned there may be some recent deaths that, pending final autopsy reports from the coroner's office, might be ruled as suicide, but she did not foresee a significant number.
"We don't expect that," she said.
Out of the 175 suicides reported for the April-November 2020 period in Riverside County, eight were youth under the age of 18. The youth figure represents an uptick of two victims compared to the same period in 2019, the RUHS-PH data show.
Attempted suicides were down for the 2020 period as well. According to RUHS-PH, 6,779 emergency department visits related to suicidal thoughts and attempts were reported, a decrease of 7 percent compared to the same period last year. Among youth under 18, the figure was down by 5.3 percent over the same period last year.
The reasons for the declines are not well understood, especially given the potential for loneliness, isolation and depression amid the state's stay-at-home order. Suicides did not spike during the 2019 period, so the year-over-year comparison is valid, Hetherington said.
While stress levels have certainly risen for many amid the pandemic, others may be finding that more time with family, less commuting on busy freeways, and spending time outdoors in local communities may be helping to reduce anxiety. For those who did not lose work amid the pandemic, personal finances may have improved because of decreased spending — which could also be leading to less stress.
Hetherington pointed out that for some contemplating taking their own life, the ability to source items for use in suicide may be limited as a result of business closures and slowdowns.
While gun laws have not changed significantly in California since 2019, the state's stringent firearms policies are likely contributing to fewer deaths by self-inflicted gunshot, said Hetherington, who also explained that resources like the Riverside County HELPline could be factors in the decreased suicide rate.
An example of the types of calls HELPline get include a woman living out of state who called to report that her son in Riverside was suicidal. HELPline counselors instructed the mother to keep her son on the phone while 911 was called and first responders were able to intervene.
Another example included a woman who called to report that her teen stepdaughter was expressing suicidal thoughts. HELPline counselors provided emotional support, counseling referrals, and steps for assessing danger.
Riverside County is not an outlier in reporting fewer suicides in 2020. Statewide figures from the California Department of Public Health paint a similar picture. Data from November 2020 is not yet available from the state, but the figures show there were 2,723 suicides across California from April 2019 through October 2019. During the same period in 2020, the state reported 2,163 deaths by suicide.
Hetherington said that while the data show improvement, families are still dealing with the loss of loved ones and their grief cannot be trivialized. She pointed to the RUHS - Behavioral Health website, which provides several resources for those contemplating suicide and/or those who know someone who is:
HELPLine - 24 Hour Crisis/Suicide Intervention
The HELPline is a free, confidential Crisis/Suicide Intervention service. Operated by highly trained volunteers, the line is open 24-hours a day, seven days a week.
Phone: (951) 686-HELP (4357)
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
By calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255) you’ll be connected to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area, anytime 24/7.
Phone: (800) 273-TALK (800-273-8255)
Spanish line: (888) 628-9454
TTY: (800) 799-4TTY (4889)
Veterans Crisis Line
The Veterans Crisis Line is a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) resource that connects Veterans in crisis or their families and friends with qualified, caring VA professionals. Confidential support is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Phone: (800)-273-8255 Press 1
The Trevor Lifeline
National organization providing crisis and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) Youth