Every now and then, I go out of my way to highlight good or uplifting news. From brave priests who do defy the Vatican to wholesome comic strips involving Mr. Rogers, I try to use these stories to lift everyone’s spirits during difficult times.
Let’s face it. We’ve had a lot of that lately. Last year gave us plenty of difficulties, to say the least. It certainly doesn’t help that good stories rarely make the news, mostly because it doesn’t garner ratings or shock value. I tried to do my part, but I admit it wasn’t easy.
I managed to find some silver linings, by they hardly made up for all the soul-crushing hardship that year wrought. My spirit is still not fully intact after being so broken by last year.
Even so, I still want to make that effort to highlight good news, especially when it’s unexpected or surprising. One such story involves the less-than-uplifting topic of suicide, something that is both emotionally charged and incredibly devastating for a great many people and their families.
If ever there was a year during which people could be forgiven for thinking such morbid thoughts, it’s 2020. If a story came out that indicated suicides went up during 2020 as the pandemic raged, then I doubt anyone would be surprised. It probably wouldn’t even be news.
However, according to a story from CBS, that’s not what happened. In fact, the opposite occurred. Against all dire assumptions and understandable cynicism, the number of suicides in the US declined significantly during 2020. I’ll give everyone a minute to wrap their heads around that.
The number of U.S. suicides fell nearly 6% last year amid the coronavirus pandemic — the largest annual decline in at least four decades, according to preliminary government data.
Death certificates are still coming in and the count could rise. But officials expect a substantial decline will endure, despite worries that COVID-19 could lead to more suicides.
It is hard to say exactly why suicide deaths dropped so much, but one factor may be a phenomenon seen in the early stages of wars and national disasters, some experts suggested.
“There’s a heroism phase in every disaster period, where we’re banding together and expressing lots of messages of support that we’re in this together,” said Dr. Christine Moutier, chief medical officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “You saw that, at least in the early months of the pandemic.”
An increase in the availability of telehealth services and other efforts to turn around the nation’s suicide problem may have also contributed, she said.
I want to make one thing clear again before proceeding. Suicide is a serious issue that affects a lot of people. If at all you’re struggling with suicidal thoughts, please consider calling a help line or reaching out to someone. There are people out there who will listen.
Having said that, I also want to note that this news genuinely surprised me. Even as someone who tries to have more faith in humanity than most, this is pretty much the opposite of what I would’ve assumed and in the best possible way.
During a crisis, people tend to panic. We all saw that last year. Anyone who fought someone for access to toilet paper remembers that. When people panic, they get stressed out. When they get stressed, they tend to get depressed. How else are you supposed to feel when you see the death toll climbing every day?
Despite all that, fewer people fell beyond that darkest of dark points. More chose to endure. That bold part is something I highlighted because that is a real effect. Whenever a disaster strikes, people tend to come together. Things like political divisions, racial strife, and what not tend to fall to the wayside when we’re all at the mercy of something we can’t control.
It’s one of humanity’s greatest strengths. Our tribalism may divide us a lot during times of peace, but when the going gets tough, we come together for the sake of survival. That’s powerful sentiment and one that can bring out the best in people. During a global pandemic, we all have to come together to some extent to make it through.
In addition, some cite the rise of telemedicine and the ability to treat people with mental illness remotely as a contributing factor. I certainly think that played a part, but I suspect that the shared struggle and solidarity that often comes during a disaster was a larger factor.
That same shared sense of community and commonality directly counter some of the most powerful risk factors for suicide. Those who make that dire choice often feel alone and isolated. They feel they lack that core sense of community that’s so critical to any social species.
The fact it was strong enough to reduce suicide during a once-in-a-century pandemic is both revealing and encouraging. It shows that this shared sense of community has tangible benefits to large swaths of people. It also hints that the world we had prior to the pandemic wasn’t given enough people this sense of connection.
You can blame that on any number of things, from smartphones to outrage culture to politics. I certainly have my theories, but I’m not smart enough or informed enough to make them credible. I highlight this story because I think it offers and important perspective.
When things get really bad, people will come together. It’s only when they get bad enough that we realize how much more we can do as a community than we can as individuals. We shouldn’t forget that. Even after this pandemic is over and things revert to some semblance of normalcy, we can’t forget that we’re a social species.
We need each other.
We need friends, family, and neighbors. It doesn’t just make us all stronger during a crisis. It’s an integral part of being human.