BANGKOK — Medical officials said Thursday they recorded a 22 percent increase in suicide cases across the country during the coronavirus pandemic.
The director of the Department of Mental Health, an agency responsible for keeping track of suicide numbers, attributed the phenomenon to financial hardship and other woes caused by the virus. The last time Thailand witnessed a similar rise in suicide figures was in the wake of the financial collapse in 1997.
“This increase is similar to the increase in suicides during the Tom Yum Kung Crisis 23 years ago,” department chief Kiatiphum Wongrajit said. “There had been an increase of 20 to 30 percent in suicides in the three years after the crisis.”
Data released by the department said 2,251 people died by suicide in the first six months of 2020, compared to 2,092 incidents in the same time period last year. The report was published ahead of the World Suicide Prevention Day, which falls on Thursday this year.
The department identified “relationship issues” and mental condition as the most common reasons for suicides, though it also noted that economic and money problems rose to take the no. 3 place this year.
The Other Epidemic
The coronavirus left 58 people dead in Thailand since the country reported its first case in January. But the disease also devastated Thailand’s key industries, especially tourism and export, and threatened to kill millions of jobs.
Suicides said to be driven by debt and business closures during the epidemic often made headlines.
In March, a 19-year-old woman killed herself after posting a sketch of Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha online, where she wrote that she was depressed because she had no money to buy milk to feed her child. A month later, a Buriram man who had been working in Pathum Thani killed himself on Facebook Live.
His mom told the press that he was out of work due to the coronavirus pandemic, and he had moved his wife and kids back home because he was afraid they would catch the virus.
A 33-year-old Bangkok woman in July also killed herself reportedly because she had been fired from her job in the pandemic. The same reason was cited in a suicide case of a 54-year-old man in Kalasin in August.
Just earlier this month on Sept. 3, officials found the body of a security guard who had jumped to his death into the Chao Phraya River in Nonthaburi. Relatives said he was impoverished after the pandemic struck.
Correlation, or Causality?
To be sure, media reports are not a reliable source of suicide data by any means. Many news agencies in Thailand lack training on suicide coverage, and they routinely cite dubious sources – even neighbors of the victims.
Mental health department spokesman Varoth Chotpitayasunondh said his agency counted the suicide cases from hospital death reports instead of government-issued death certificates, since the latter were often too slow for research purposes. He acknowledged the report may contain “a small margin of error.”
“So we use the same standard to measure 2019 and 2020,” Varoth said. “We are definitely seeing an increase in suicides, just like after Tom Yum Kung.”
He continued, “This doesn’t just mean economic problems because of COVID-19 but also changing means of work and society.”
Not everyone sees the causality between the pandemic and suicides, however. Nattakorn Jampathong, head of the National Suicide Prevention Center, said by phone Thursday that other factors independent of the coronavirus remain the top cause for suicides.
“COVID-19 may have an effect on increasing the numbers, but I don’t think it can be used to explain everything,” he said. “I think relationship problems and recurring health problems are still important factors.”
Nattakorn said that during the lockdown months starting in March, he saw that suicides spurred by alcohol abuse had even dropped.
“Alcohol is a catalyst for suicide, but it was gone from society from a bit. It was a miracle in that period, since suicide numbers dropped,” Nattakorn said.
Not Just the Poor
But researcher on suicide prevention Amornthep Sachamuneewongse said although the pandemic might not be the direct cause of suicides, troubles and crises brought about by the virus can escalate the urge to take one’s life.
“It’s an accelerator, a trigger for suicide,” said Amornthep, who is developing a mental health hotline application. “For example, if someone already has severe economic problems, then COVID-19 makes the situation more severe and puts them under more stress.”
“Doctors and advisers recently have all been saying this,” he said.
The poorest in Thailand were – naturally – the most affected in the pandemic, with many having to rely on government handouts during the business shutdowns. But Amornthep said he believed the same tribulation would ripple upwards through social strata; the middle class set to experience stress from the pandemic next.
Trakarn Chensy, director of Samaritans of Thailand, said that his hotline center has been receiving many calls from those who said they were struggling through the coronavirus pandemic.
“During the lockdown months we got almost double the normal amount of calls,” Trakan said. “Many were related to economic problems they faced because of COVID.”
Kiattiphum, the mental health department chief, also lamented that suicide prevention efforts are hindered by the existence of Facebook groups that advocate self-harm; some even have members sharing suicide methods and discussing last wills.
“These people need urgent help, but many times we are unable to contact them back,” Kiattiphum said.