Hong Kong’s suicide index hits ‘crisis level’ in Covid fifth wave

Researchers say the spike could be due to isolation under Covid social distancing norms

Sravasti Dasgupta
Wednesday 30 March 2022 11:32
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(Related) Hong Kong public hospitals hanging by a thread amid surge of fifth-wave Covid cases

Deaths by suicide in Hong Kong reached “crisis level” during the city’s fifth Covid wave, new research revealed.

The Hong Kong Jockey Club Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention at the University of Hong Kong said its suicide index had registered 4.03 deaths per day over a seven-day period between 11 and 18 March, crossing the crisis-level mark of 3.56 in its rolling analysis.

The index dipped to 3.69 on 20 March, but rose to 4.01 a day later.

The system consists of three warning levels, including medium risk, high risk and crisis level. It offers an estimated number of deaths by suicide every day by calculating a weighted average of cases reported by the media in the previous year.

Researchers said the current spike could be due to isolation under Covid social-distancing norms enforced by the government.

“We believe social distancing introduced not only physical distancing, but also emotional disconnectedness, leading to a sense of isolation and abandonment by family members and their community… [causing] an impact on mental health,” professor Paul Yip Siu-fai, the centre’s founding director was quoted as saying to the Hong Kong Free Press.

He added that current figures are hovering around 11 to 12 death by suicide cases per million people, indicating the city may see its annual total of such deaths to be “well above” 2003 levels.

Hong Kong had reported around 1,200 suicides or 18.6 suicides per million people in that year, when the SARS epidemic and the subsequent economic downturn had occurred.

In a statement on Tuesday, Mr Yip said the figures indicated the number of elderly people who will die by suicide would increase this year.

“Based on this figure, we estimate the number of elderly people committing suicide will hit 400 this year, 1.5 times more than last year,” he was quoted as saying by the South China Morning Post newspaper.

The city’s elderly were prone to the greatest risk of dying by suicide, followed by those in the 35-54 age group, troubled by health and financial problems, he added.

The nonprofit Suicide Prevention Services also noted an increase in the number of calls seeking help on its hotline.

Vincent Ng, the organisation’s executive director, said the hotline had received 22,000 calls received in the first two months of the year.

The number of calls had also risen 50 per cent last year compared to 2020, he said.

Hong Kong has been in the grip of a spiralling Omicron outbreak, with a fifth Covid wave having swept the city since December last year, overwhelming healthcare facilities.

“Amid the fifth wave of the Omicron variant where the elderly have to be isolated from their family members by stringent social-distancing curbs, they can easily have negative feelings such as loneliness, anger, sorrow and the feelings of being abandoned,” Mr Ng told SCMP.

Mr Yip said it was necessary for the community to take care of each other, especially the elderly.

“People should take the initiative to care for people around you, especially the elderly,” he said.

“To lessen the anxiety of the elderly, try to provide more positive information about the pandemic, such as the recoveries.”

If you are experiencing feelings of distress and isolation, or are struggling to cope, The Samaritans offers support; you can speak to someone for free over the phone, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email jo@samaritans.org, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch.

If you are based in the USA, and you or someone you know needs mental health assistance right now, call National Suicide Prevention Helpline on 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The Helpline is a free, confidential crisis hotline that is available to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

If you are in another country, you can go to www.befrienders.org to find a helpline near you.

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