Suicide spikes and moral panic

News and video last week of a pregnant woman being arrested over organising a demonstration against Victoria’s COVID lockdowns and her later media interviews—in which she said she was sick of ‘the suicides’ and people losing their jobs—piqued more than my usual interest in matters of loony conspiracies. Around the same time, an acquaintance (not a conspiracy loony at all) was posting information about isolation and the number of suicides caused by the COVID situation. Her figures came from a commercial news item that used modelling from the Brain and Mind Centre at the University of Sydney. This was the same day that the Victorian State Coroner publicly stated that there had been no rise in suicides in Victoria. Rather than the 2100 deaths claimed by 7News, Victoria had recorded about 450 suicides in the past 12 months (a similar total to the previous year) and, importantly, no increase from April to August. The coroner felt compelled to speak out publicly because of all the figures being thrown around that had no relationship to reality in any way.

That so many of the figures emanated from academic sources gave the sociologist in me the impetus to start looking at the current vogue of modelling, particularly modelling of human behaviour. How is it possible that the models tell us that we should be killing ourselves at great rates, and instead we are choosing to be staunch and stay alive? I do not mean to be flippant, but we can see here how moral panics can be started and go in bizarre directions because well-meaning people want to highlight real problems, but in the process become extreme-claims-makers to muscle their way into the public consciousness.

In May 2020, the Brain and Mind Centre released a short report called Sounding the Alarm: A Post-Covid-19 Curve for Suicide. This was a modelling exercise done for the NSW North Coast Primary Health Network on the possible scenarios related to mental-health presentations in emergency departments, suicide attempts and suicide deaths. Importantly, it used the unemployment rate as the main driver of actions such as suicide attempts and deaths. This is not unreasonable because the historical evidence shows that unemployment plays a major role in both. The report argued that a best-case scenario would see an increase of suicide deaths of 23 per cent and a worst-case scenario an increase of 53 per cent. In late July the same institution released a larger and much more detailed report of similar modelling for the whole of Australia. While acknowledging that national averages were likely to be different to regional ones, this model forecast an increase in suicides of 13.7 per cent over the next five years. So if the model is accurate, the scenario forecasts almost 20,000 completed suicides in Australia in the next five years, 2100 more than might have happened otherwise. So here we finally come to an understanding of where the 7News report came from and why the attempt by the Brain and Mind Centre to ‘sound the alarm’ created a moral panic.

The current vogue for modelling is understandable but really needs to be taken with many grains of salt. These are mathematical models, sometimes based on actual experience, overlaid with many assumptions about how humans behave. Certainly the modelling of potential suicides uses some of the actual experience of unemployment and suicide to underscore its figures, but it completely omits the sociological and historical understanding of a community’s reaction to a major social event such as a war or pandemic.  Emile Durkheim argued 120 years ago that major historical events such as war, or dramatic social change (like bushfires), actually provided an impetus to social cohesion that meant suicide rates went down. The idea that ‘we are all in this together’ really means something. There is evidence that suicides went up after the flu pandemic in 1918–19, but some literature suggests that at least part of it was related to the neurological responses to the disease itself. US literature also suggests that suicide rates went down in the 1920s because of Prohibition and the difficulty of getting alcohol for many Americans—something that various institutions such as the Brain and Mind Centre and Beyond Blue have not yet suggested.

The state of ‘normlessness’—or anomie, as Durkheim called it—is very close to what these two reports suggest happens to young people who are not attached to employment or education. It is this feeling of exclusion and lack of community that would drive some to consider self-harm. I would argue that that is rather different to the moral panic around people being isolated at home under lockdown conditions. There does not seem to be any recognition that technology has changed the way many people do their socialising. It is clearly not the same as physical human interaction, and loneliness is a very real emotion at the moment, but these conditions do not necessarily add up to ‘mental illness’ and the next step being self-harm. These are social conditions that need social change. To their credit, the Brain and Mind Centre reports state clearly that the most effective strategies to prevent a rise in suicides and self-harm are employment programs. Attachment to community, a feeling of responsibility for others and a sense of being part of a wider social world are fundamental to human satisfaction.

The groups whose raison d’être is to maintain the public’s vision on issues such as mental illness are competing in very crowded room, and have to scream very loudly to be heard. They need to yell to make sure that we are scared enough to take notice of them. I don’t blame them: they are competing with many other groups whose interests involve the poor, the dispossessed and the disadvantaged, and all these groups know they cannot rely on the state to deal with them equitably or effectively. So they scream even louder. This becomes the essence of their moral panic. Interestingly, the Brain and Mind Centre report also models a 5-per-cent increase in self-harm, suicide and emergency-department mental-illness presentations because of mental health awareness programs. Make of that what you will. But mental health groups need to be aware and take note of how they might play into the hands of the conspiracy theorists who wish to undermine state responses to the pandemic. It seems to me misguided to entitle a report Sounding the Alarm and think that no aspect of the highly networked and technological society in which we live will use it for purposes far from the benign ones intended. Their screaming has led to intense political pressure to open up economies and undermine the measures taken to halt the pandemic. It has also added to the anti-5G, anti-vaxxer and ‘sovereign citizen’ conspiracists’ arsenal of claims, regardless of the fact that we are not killing ourselves because of the lockdown. We may be unhappy and lonely, but that is a very rational response to the situation we find ourselves in.

About the author

Grazyna Zajdow

Grazyna Zajdow is Associate Professor of Sociology at Deakin University where she has taught for many years. Her research interests have been the experience and social effects of drugs and alcohol and feminist sociology. She was a co-editor of Arena Magazine and is Associate Editor of Arena (third series).

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