A piece in yesterday’s Times:
A third of young men in Scotland contemplated taking their lives as the impact of the coronavirus crisis took its toll on their mental health, alarming new figures have revealed.
Concern is growing that the pandemic and waves of lockdown are prompting a rise in suicidal thoughts. Preliminary figures have also pointed to an increase in probable suicides since the start of the crisis.
The proportion of men aged 18 to 29 reporting suicidal feelings soared to more than 34 per cent in July and August last year, according to report outlining the results of the most recent survey published today.
This was despite the relaxation of lockdown later in the summer which permitted more social interaction, visits to the pub and holidays abroad.
There are about 430,000 men aged 18 to 29 in Scotland so the results suggest tens of thousands of men are suffering life-threatening mental anguish.
Women, young adults, those who were already mentally ill and the poor were particularly prone to psychological distress.
Scottish government researchers interviewed 2,604 adults between May 28 and June 21 2020 and followed up with 1,703 adults between July 17 and August 17 last year.
Their report, published today, states: “Rates of depressive and anxiety symptoms did not significantly change . . . however, rates of suicidal ideation in the week prior to completing the survey increased.
“Although the exact reason for this increase cannot be known, it could reflect a lagged effect, or that the items assessing mental health measures such as depression focus on the past, whereas the suicidal question is tapping uncertainty or concerns about the future like thinking about suicide is an option for the future, which remains uncertain despite easing of lockdown.”
Probable suicides reached a 16-year high last summer, stoking fears that the pandemic is taking a dangerous toll on Scotland’s mental health.
There were 255 deaths from intentional self-harm, undetermined intent and assault in the three months to September, the highest since comparable records began in 2004.
Suicides and probable suicides where intent could not be determined are likely to account for most of these deaths because assaults have made up less than 10 per cent of the total in previous summers.
Public Health Scotland is investigating suspicions that the second wave of coronavirus and lockdown, which began escalating from October, has led to even more suicides and a reduction in people seeking medical help for other serious conditions.
Nearly a quarter of respondents to the Scottish government survey reported levels of depressive symptoms indicating a possible need for treatment, and one in six reported anxiety.
Distress and possible psychiatric disorder decreased from 33 per cent 28 per cent per cent, while loneliness fell and general mental wellbeing increased. The survey is in line with the UK Covid mental health monitor, which found a similar increase in suicidal thoughts but a reduction in anxiety and mental wellbeing.
The report adds: “In addition to the physical health impact, there is growing evidence of the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on mental health and wellbeing that will extend beyond those who have been directly affected by the virus.
“We know from the Sars outbreak in 2003 that anxiety increased, suicide rates also increased in some groups and that suicidal thoughts increased in the early phase of the pandemic in the UK.
“Although initial findings on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on suicide rates globally were reassuring, recent data highlight the need for vigilance.”
Unpaid carers and people who had been put on furlough or lost their jobs entirely were more likely to report depression.
Ten per cent said they were drinking more over the summer but 15 per cent said they were drinking less, and the rest either reported no change or no alcohol at all.
Researchers said fewer young men took part in the second survey, which may have skewed the figures.
Rachel Cackett, Samaritans Scotland executive director, said: “While we are encouraged to see some signs of improvement, including a reduction in levels of loneliness and distress between the first and second waves of this research, we are deeply concerned to see levels of suicidal ideation increasing over this period.
“However, it is important to remember that a rise in people reporting suicidal thoughts does not mean a rise in suicides is inevitable. Suicide is preventable and these results demonstrate that it’s more important than ever that effective support is available for those who need it most and preventative efforts are focused on those at greatest risk.”
Wendy Halliday, See Me director, said: “It’s concerning to see a rise in the number of men contemplating suicide during this period, especially considering it was a point where people had more options for social interaction than they do right now.
“Too many people in Scotland struggle alone because the stigma and discrimination around mental health can make it difficult to ask for help, in particular men.
“No one should ever be made to feel ashamed or embarrassed to tell anyone they are struggling with their mental health, and we have to remove the stigma so people can speak about how they’re feeling before they reach a point where suicide feels like an option.”
Clare Haughey, Scotland’s mental health minister, said: “Mental health and suicide prevention are key priorities for the Scottish government, and since the outbreak we have invested over £6 million in initiatives such as expanding NHS24’s Mental Health Hub to a 24/7 service and enhancing its Breathing Space helpline and web support services. We also made the Distress Brief Intervention programme available on a national basis, through NHS 24.
“Our Transition and Recovery Plan, published in response to the mental health impacts of Covid-19, sets out over 100 actions we are taking to address those additional pressures on the population’s mental health, brought about by the pandemic.”
Billy Watson, chief executive of the Scottish Association for Mental Health, said “the pandemic has had a profound effect on individuals’ mental health”.
He added: “Clearly, many people are struggling more than ever. These findings are published in the context of an increase in suicides in both 2018 and 2019, with data for 2020 still to be published, and that is why we need to redouble our efforts on suicide prevention.”
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