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A woman sitting on her own in a train carriage during the coronavirus crisis.

Governments need to give ‘urgent consideration’ to their public health response to prevent any   possible impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the number of suicides, experts warn.

There’s growing concern about the far-reaching impact COVID-19 may have on people’s mental health across the globe, with the consequences likely to be present for longer and peak later than the actual pandemic.

Forty-two researchers from around the world, including Professor Ann John, Deputy Head of Swansea University Medical School, have formed the International COVID-19 Suicide Prevention Research Collaboration.

Writing in The Lancet Psychiatry, they say an increase in suicides is not inevitable - provided preventive action is taken imminently.

Professor John, paper author, who is also Chair of the National Advisory Group to Welsh Government on suicide and self-harm prevention, said: “We don’t know yet whether the Covid-19 pandemic and the measures taken to curb it will affect suicide rates but we do know that suicide is potentially preventable if we take action to mitigate those effects now rather than later.

“Those actions range from supporting those who are lonely and vulnerable including those on the frontline, young people and the bereaved to responsible media reporting and economic policy.”

The authors say examples of interventions include developing clear care pathways for people who are suicidal, remote or digital assessments for people under mental health care, staff training to support new ways of working, support for helplines, providing easily accessible help for those who have lost a loved one to the virus, the provision of financial safety nets and labour market programmes, and dissemination of evidence-based online interventions.

They added that those with psychiatric disorders might experience worsening symptoms and others might develop new mental health problems, especially depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress.

Loss of employment and financial worries may contribute to feelings of hopelessness. In addition to providing financial safety nets in the short-term, researchers highlight that active labour market programmes will be ‘crucial’ in the long-term.

As domestic violence cases increase, academics recommend public health responses must ensure that those facing domestic violence are supported and that safe drinking messages are communicated.

The global group of experts conclude: “These are unprecedented times. The pandemic will cause distress and leave many vulnerable. Mental health consequences are likely to be present for longer and peak later than the actual pandemic.

“However, research evidence and the experience of national strategies provide a strong basis for suicide prevention. We should be prepared to take the actions highlighted here, backed by vigilance and international collaboration.”

Additional efforts may be required in some lower income countries with fewer public health resources and inadequate welfare support. Other concerns in these countries include the social effects of banning religious gatherings and funerals, domestic violence, and vulnerable migrant workers.

The International COVID-19 Suicide Prevention Research Collaboration also reiterate how irresponsible media reporting of suicide can encourage further suicides. Journalists should ensure that reporting follows existing and COVID-19-specific guidelines.

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