No spike in Kent Co suicides in 2020, continued vigilance urged

Kent County

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, help is available at all times by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.273.TALK. Those under the age of 21 can talk to a peer by calling Teen Link at 1.866.833.6546.


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Kent County death records show a predicted shutdown-related spike in suicides did not materialize in 2020.

But mental health professionals urge continued vigilance, especially as people continue to re-engage in their normal, hectic routines.

While the Kent County medical examiner’s office reports a drop in 2020 suicides, it notes an uptick in 2021 year to date, signaling a potential return to higher pre-pandemic levels.

  • 2021 so far: 45
  • 2020 total: 63
  • 2019 total: 87
  • 2018 total: 97 (highest ever)
  • 2017 total: 89
  • 2016 total: 86

“It was kind of depressing to be in the pandemic and not being able to get out,” said Dr. Stephen Cohle, medical examiner for Kent County. “And with the unemployment being bad and people losing their jobs, I would have thought that would have triggered an increase. But surprisingly it didn’t. Thankfully, it didn’t.”

To track the pandemic’s impact on mental health, Target 8 used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain initial case reports from Kent County’s 63 deaths by suicide in 2020.

The medical examiner’s office removed all identifying information before sharing the documents.

Of the 63 suicides, three initial case reports made mention of the pandemic.

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In one of the three cases, relatives noted the individual was “despondent over recent COVID pandemic restrictions.”

In another case, a family member reported the decedent was “paranoid about the COVID-19 pandemic and was tested a number of times.”

In the third case, a relative told investigators the individual had been “‘spiraling downward’ for several months, complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic shelter-in-place order.”

In each of those three cases, the person who died by suicide had prior, documented mental health challenges.

Overall, in 39% of the 63 cases, families reported a prior suicide attempt or diagnosed mental health disorder.

Fifty two percent of those who died by suicide in 2020 were 20 to 44 years old.

Two other age groups, 45 to 64 and 64+ each comprised 19% of the deaths.

Nine percent were 19 or younger.

Barbara Hawkins-Palmer, coordinator for the Kent County Suicide Prevention Coalition, pointed to the increased focus on mental well-being during the pandemic as a potential reason for the drop in suicides.

“We were vigilant during the pandemic because people were isolated,” said Hawkins-Palmer, who’s employed by the Kent County Health Department.

“We created new resources, we created new links and places where people could get counseling online. Services, I think, expanded because of the pandemic. So, the thing we’re concerned about now is, ‘don’t lose those resources.'”

You should seek help if you note these warning signs, the Kent County Health Department says:  

  • Inability to cope with daily tasks
  • Rapid mood swings
  • Increased agitation
  • Risky thoughts or behaviors
  • Out of touch with reality
  • Isolation from school, work, family, friends
  • Suicidal, homicidal, or other violent thoughts or actions
  • Planning for death such as giving away possessions

The confidential National Suicide Prevention Hotline is free and available 24/7 at 1.800.273.TALK (8255).

Some experts have theorized that, although COVID-19 restrictions brought new stressors, they may have lessened others by forcing people to slow down, stay home and reconnect with immediate family in person and extended family online.

The Office of the Medical Examiner based at WMU’s Homer Styker School of Medicine reports only a slight increase in 2020 suicides for the twelve counties it covers.

Among those dozen counties, which include Kalamazoo, Muskegon, Barry and Allegan, there were 197 suicides in 2020 compared to 191 in 2019.

While state and federal suicide data have not been finalized for 2020, early statistics also suggest no spike in suicides in 2020.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services told News 8 provisional data (some records are still outstanding) show 1,284 suicides statewide in 2020 compared to 1,471 in 2019.

The Centers for Disease Control told News 8 its 2020 suicide data is not final, but shared provisional statistics that show 44,834 deaths by suicide in 2020 compared to 47,511 in 2019.

While suicides did not increase in 2020, overdose deaths nationwide jumped by 30% in 2020, according to the CDC.

The state health department also reported early data showed an increase in overdoses.

West Michigan saw spikes in accidental overdoses in Spring 2020, roughly corresponding with the shutdown.

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