The number of suicides has been climbing for decades and reached its highest point, 48,344, in 2018. Many expected the pandemic to cause a spike in suicides, but in 2020 the numbers dropped for the second year in a row, to 45,979.
That dip seemed to come to an end in 2021, with a total of 48,183 suicides.
Previous pandemics, wars and natural disasters have also seen a temporary drop in suicide rates, as communities mobilize to weather a crisis, said Dr. Christine Moutier, the chief medical officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Collective emergencies bring a “retrenching, with psychological girding and resilience and working against a common enemy,” Dr. Moutier said. “That will wane, and then you will see rebounding in suicide rates. That is, in fact, what we feared would happen. And it has happened, at least in 2021.”
Dr. Stone, of the C.D.C., noted that this also occurred during the 1918 influenza pandemic. “In the longer-term, some populations hardest hit by the crisis will continue to struggle with the impact of the crisis, which may have compounded pre-existing inequities,” she said.
The data revealed good news, as well: There was a 12.4 percent overall decrease in the suicide rates among older Americans ages 45 to 64, with notable drops among white, Hispanic and Asian people in that age group.
This positive trend, Dr. Moutier noted, sometimes occurred alongside a negative trend in younger age groups. “What is changing, in terms of the environment and access to lethal means, and culture?” she said. “It’s almost like we have different subcultures, depending on your generation and the community you’re living in.”
One factor in rising suicide rates in younger age groups is the “remarkable weakening of our mental health response system,” which has made it extraordinarily challenging to get care for children and adolescents in crisis, said Mitch Prinstein, the chief science officer of the American Psychological Association.