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Suicidal ideation in the wake of COVID-19

Research shows younger adults, racial/ethnic minorities, essential workers and unpaid adult caregivers are disproportionately affected — what you can do to help.

“Mental health professionals are uniquely positioned to offer much needed support and guidance to those struggling amidst the pandemic, and our collective efforts can not only reduce morbidity but save lives, too,” stated Rakel Beall-Wilkins, MD, MHP, medical director at Magellan Healthcare, who contributed insights for this article.

Current research

The pandemic has had broad-reaching impacts on both the physical and mental well-being of individuals and communities around the world.

  • In a study conducted by the CDC and U.S. Census Bureau, upwards of 41.5% of Americans reported symptoms of a depressive or anxiety disorder.[1]
  • Many people grapple with the chronic stress of uncertainty, and in some cases face tremendous financial, social, medical and emotional hardship at the same time.
  • More than 600,000 Americans have succumbed to COVID-19, leaving a wake of grief, loss and loneliness among the living.

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For some, the weight of the last 18 months has pushed them to the brink of contemplating suicide.

Contributing causes

  • For young adults, school disruptions, lockdown measures and social isolation have significantly altered their lives and in turn elicited feelings of hopelessness, distress and fear about what their future holds.[3] Many have delayed or changed their plans for academic, athletic and career achievement, and many have experienced food and shelter insecurity as a result of the pandemic-induced economic downturn.
  • For ethnic minorities, the compounding stress of social injustice, discrimination, a charged racial climate and increased incidence of hate crimes against people of color is linked to increasing rates of depression and anxiety.[4],[5] Furthermore, ethnic minorities who are more likely to work “essential” jobs that do not permit them to work from home face both the stress of possible exposure to the virus at work and the economic impact of work stoppages, unpaid sick leave and chronic job insecurity.[6],[7]
  • One study showed that when compared with non-essential workers, essential workers were more than twice as likely to have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder during the pandemic (25% vs. 9%), and to have received treatment from a mental health professional (34% vs. 12%).[8]
  • For unpaid caregivers of adults, the pandemic has limited access to traditional modes of support, increased social isolation and worsened the challenges that caregivers routinely face.[9] In a recent study, roughly two-thirds of unpaid caregivers reported that they had experienced mental health symptoms during the pandemic, and almost 40% reported having passive suicidal thoughts.[10] 
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Taken together, these arresting statistics indicate that the most vulnerable among us have been shouldering the brunt of the pandemic’s worst mental health impacts.

What we can do now

  • For all patients, the seemingly simple act of asking how the pandemic has affected their lives and providing a safe space for them to be heard can go a long way toward validating their lived experience and gauging the necessity for a more comprehensive intervention.
  • For patients who screen positive for mental health disorders, consider both psychotherapeutic and pharmacological treatment modalities to reduce symptomology and the potential for harm to self or others.
  • For patients with suicidal thoughts, be certain to screen for access to lethal weapons, and abuse or misuse of both prescription and illicit drugs, as well as alcohol.
  • For patients with caregivers, also consider screening caregivers for mental health symptoms.

Now more than ever, it is evident that primary care providers and behavioral health professionals must remain vigilant in treating and screening for mental health disorders, thoughts of self-harm and maladaptive coping behaviors. 

This is especially true in your services to young adults, ethnic minorities, essential workers and unpaid caregivers.

Accompanying resources

Be sure to check out our accompanying resources for Suicide Awareness Prevention Month.

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[1] Vahratian A, Blumberg SJ, Terlizzi EP, Schiller JS. Symptoms of Anxiety or Depressive Disorder and Use of Mental Health Care Among Adults During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, August 2020–February 2021. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2021;70:490–494. DOI: icon

[2] Czeisler MÉ , Lane RI, Petrosky E, et al. Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, June 24–30, 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2020;69:1049–1057. DOI: icon








[10] Czeisler MÉ, Rohan EA, Melillo S, et al. Mental Health Among Parents of Children Aged <18 Years and Unpaid Caregivers of Adults During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, December 2020 and February–⁠March 2021. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2021;70:879–887. DOI: icon

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Welcome to Provider Focus, our award-winning e-newsletter for network providers! Here you’ll find articles and information to keep you up-to-date on news and topics relevant to serving Magellan members, including a section for regional- and plan-specific news. Check back as a new issue is released each quarter.

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