38% of those screened for depression reported suicidal thoughts amid COVID-19

About Katti Gray

Katti Gray (@kattigray) is AHCJ's core topic leader for behavioral and mental health. A former Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow, Gray is providing resources to help AHCJ members expand their coverage of mental health amid ongoing efforts to de-stigmatize mental illness and to place mental health care on par with all health care.

Photo by Ross Sneddon via Unsplash.

Photo by Ross Sneddon via Unsplash.

The first of four briefs Mental Health America will release in 2021 has concluded that 38% of 725,949 people who completed the organization’s clinically validated mental health screening had suicidal thoughts in 2020.

The “Suicide and COVID-19: Communities in Need Across America” brief is based on an analysis of those individuals’ answers to questions in the organization’s online screening tool. In total, 2.6 million users did that voluntary screening in 2020, the highest number since Mental Health America in 2014 launched the screening, which allows deep analysis zip code by zip code of who’s in mental distress.

Of the nearly 726,000 people suffering from suicidal ideation or considering harming themselves in other ways, 277,000 had disclosed those thoughts while doing Mental Health America’s screening for depression.

The next Mental Health American brief, which will parse information provided by those screened for severe depression, will be released around Aug. 11, said Jillian Hughes, the organization’s communications director.

The remaining, separate analyses of psychosis and post-traumatic stress disorder will be released by year’s end, but no precise dates have been set, Hughes said.

Other findings of the initial brief, released in May, are:

  • The three states with the highest number of people reporting frequent suicidal ideation in 2020 were California, Texas and Florida.
  • Hawaii had the highest percentage of people reporting suicidal thoughts, followed by Montana, West Virginia, Nevada and New Mexico.
  • Alaska had the highest proportion of people reporting frequent thoughts of suicide or self-harm, followed by Alabama, Wyoming, Indiana and Hawaii.
  • The three U.S. counties with the highest number of people reporting thoughts of suicide or self-harm in 2020 were Los Angeles County; Maricopa County, Ariz.; and Cook County, Ill.
  • Of the most populated counties, Bexar County, Texas had the highest proportion of the population report frequent thoughts of suicide or self-harm, followed by Clark County, Nev.; Riverside County, Calif., Maricopa County, Ariz.; and San Bernardino County, Calif.
  • Of small- and mid-size counties, Carroll County, Ky. had the highest proportion of the population report frequent thoughts of suicide or self-harm, followed by Switzerland County, Ind.; Whitley County, Ky.; Greensville County, Va.; and Ripley County, Ind.

The aim of Mental Health America’s brief is, in part, to fill in data gaps that seem especially critical during a period of heightened awareness and discussion of mental health and enrollment of a disproportionate number of first-ever patients in mental health care, Hughes added. Also, it fills in a gap because the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration generally takes several years to update its data.

As Mental Health America continues adding to its data, so far in 2021, it appears that more people have done the organization’s screening than during all of 2020, Hughes said. Her organization will know that definitively after it completes its January through July 2021 analysis.

“I don’t think more people taking a screen necessarily means we are doing worse,” Hughes said, regarding 2020 versus 2021 mental stresses. “It speaks to awareness. The biggest athlete on the world stage has been talking about her mental health … in a period of people really reflecting on their mental health.”

Hughes was alluding to gymnast Simone Biles, who openly acknowledged the mental strain she was experiencing in her withdrawal from several events.

Story ideas: 

  • What is the economic, racial, medical-insurance profile of persons in your community who are seeking mental health care, especially first-time seekers, and which organizations are addressing those needs?
  • How have the Mental Health America and other data, presumably, helped to inform innovations in mental health care?
  • Of pre-existing mental health resources, which have ramped up or revamped their care practices? How? Why? With what resources or lack of resources?

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