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COVID-19: No U.S. spike expected in pandemic-related suicidal ideation



Americans are not feeling more suicidal even in the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic of spring 2020, according to analysis of real-time national data accrued through the Crisis Text Line.

But that’s not to say Americans are feeling less distressed. Quite the contrary, Nancy Lublin, CEO and cofounder of Crisis Text Line, noted at the virtual annual meeting of the American Association of Suicidology.

“We’ve seen a 40% increase in volume since early March. Seventy-eight percent of our conversations are now including words like ‘freaked out,’ ‘panicked,’ ‘scared.’ People are worried about COVID-19. They’re nervous about symptoms; they’re concerned for family on the front lines,” she said.

And yet, from mid-March through mid-April, only 22% of texters to the crisis line expressed suicidal ideation, down from a usual background rate of 28%. Moreover, just 13% of texters who mentioned ‘COVID,’ ‘quarantine,’ or ‘virus’ expressed suicidal ideation, compared with 25% of other texters.

Ms. Lublin and her data crunchers are tracking not only the impact of the disease, but they’re also monitoring the mental health effects of the quarantine and social distancing.

“People are away from their routines, and perhaps [are] quarantined with abusive people. We’ve seen a 48% increase in texts involving sexual abuse and a 74% increase in domestic violence,” she said.

Texts focused on eating disorders or body image issues have jumped by 45%. And roughly two-thirds of texters now describe feelings of depression.

One of the biggest mental health impacts she and colleagues have seen stem from the economic recession triggered by the pandemic.

“We’ve seen more people reach out with fears of bankruptcy, fears of homelessness, fears of financial ruin. Thirty-two percent of our texters now report household incomes under $20,000 per year. That’s up from 19% before,” according to Ms. Lublin.

The Crisis Text Line (text HOME to 741741) uses machine-learning algorithms that sift through incoming text messages from people in crisis for key words, then ranks the messages by severity. Since its launch in 2013, this service, available 24/7, has processed roughly 150 million text messages. The high-risk texters – for example, someone who’s swallowed a bottle of pills or is texting from the San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, as has occurred some 500 times – are connected in an average of 24 seconds with a thoroughly trained volunteer crisis counselor. And there is a third party in these texting conversations: a paid staff supervisor with a master’s degree in a relevant discipline who follows the encounter in real time and can step in if needed.

“Active rescues are involved in less than 1% of our conversations, but still we do them on average 26 times per day. Over the years, we’ve completed more than 32,000 active rescues,” she said.

The Crisis Text Line is not exclusively a suicide prevention hotline. The top five issues people text about involve relationship concerns, depression, anxiety, self-harm, and suicidal ideation. Roughly 45% of the texters are under age 17, 17% are Hispanic, 5.5% Native American, and 44% are LGBTQ. Over time, Ms. Lublin and staff have used Big Data to tweak the screening algorithm as they’ve identified even higher red flag texting words than “suicide.”

“The word ‘military’ makes it twice as likely that we’ll have to call 9-1-1 than the word ‘suicide.’ ‘Gun,’ ‘rope’ – four times as likely. In the [United KIngdom], where we’re also operating, we see the word ‘cliff’ is a more lethal word than the word ‘suicide.’ But the most dangerous words that we see are any named pill,” she said.

The Crisis Text Line was recently awarded a 2020 TED Audacious Project grant to expand their services from English to also be offered in Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Arabic worldwide within the next two and a half years. This will provide coverage to one-third of the world’s population, including people with cell phones living in countries with very limited mental health services.


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