A stunning statistic from data released by the Oregon Health Authority puts the number of deaths by COVID-19 and suicide on display.
Any guess which is the bigger killer for 2020 so far?
386 people have died by suicide, according to OHA.
In our county in Oregon, we’ve had just 2 deaths from coronavirus, both in older adults who had underlying conditions. But in the same time period we’ve had more than ten times that number of deaths from suicide: in Jackson County a whopping 24 people have died by suicide.
These are not random statistics. Suicide and COVID-19 are inexorably linked. The lockdowns, mandated face coverings, and ongoing school closures are causing many—perhaps even most—Oregonians to suffer mentally, especially our children. While Oregon tends to have high suicide rates even when we’re not in a pandemic, the despair people are feeling is leading many young people to want to end their lives. But how we handle these deaths, and how we think of them, is anything but equal.
Lessons from unequal deaths
Ok, another quiz: Despite the number of suicide deaths outpacing COVID-19 deaths in Oregon, which created headline news with The Oregonian earlier this week?
Nothing about suicides (besides a Dear Annie column). Instead, the headline news is that our coronavirus positive test rates have skyrocketed.
“Deaths over the past are also at record levels, with at least 25 people dying each week,” The Oregonian reports. It singled out the state’s 327th and 328th deaths by age and place of residence: a 71-year-old Marion County man, a 50-year-old Multnomah County man with underlying conditions.
But no mention of the person who was number 381 or 382 who died by suicide.
When it comes to COVID-19 and suicide, there really is no contest. Suicide is ignored. It’s as if these people don’t matter. Their deaths are unimportant.
Those of us of a certain age remember well the terror the country felt in the aftermath of 9-11 when 2,996 people died in ghastly horror, which millions witnessed in real time on TV. Those deaths changed the world.
We’ve been fighting a “war on terror” ever since. Security has forever changed. Violence against Muslims and anti-Muslim sentiment have risen. The loss of personal liberties has never returned—forever changed.
That same year, 2001, 15,980 people were murdered in the United States, most by gun violence, according to FBI statistics. But those murders were put on the back burner to 9-11. No other deaths seemed to matter.
Not all deaths are created equal. It’s like there’s a flavor of the month based on the news cycles. Right now COVID-19 deaths are the only deaths that matter. Deaths by suicide don’t. Even though those dying by suicide tend to be young people, we don’t seem to care.
What do I want done about COVID-19 and suicide?
We are seeing young people’s mental health destroyed by the fear COVID-19 has created.
“If it’s not COVID-19, the vast majority of patients are coming in for steep anxiety, panic attacks, and suicidal ideation,” said a friend who works in a downtown Portland medical office.
People are stressed, scared, and suffering in pandemic proportions.
Every avoidable death matters. We need to be kind and compassionate towards not just those affected by COVID-19 but everyone who is suffering right now. COVID-19 and suicide. It’s a both/and, not an either/or.
We need a plan to address the mental health crisis caused by the immense disruption of COVID-19 on young people.
I wrote a letter to my state representatives sharing this information and asking them quite specifically: What’s the plan?
I can tell you what’s not working: decisions based on fear, mandated masks, forbidding healthy children from playing with each other and seeing their relatives and getting and giving hugs.