Disease epidemic kills without contact

The excellent Providentia blog covers a previously under-recognised psychological danger of disease epidemics: increased suicides in unaffected people.

A recently published study looked at how the suicide rate changed during the SARS epidemic in Hong Kong, which claimed almost 300 lives between November 2002 and August 2003, finding that it prompted greater levels of self-harm among those not directly affected by the outbreak.

The study also examined coroner’s reports to understand the situations surrounding the suicides and found deaths rose particularly among older people, likely because the epidemic caused worries about being a burden and fears of disconnection from other people – among other mental stresses.

In a paper published in a recent issue of Crisis: The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention, the authors examined the mechanism of how the SARS outbreak resulted in a higher completed suicide rate, especially among older adults in Hong Kong. Using qualitative data analysis to uncover the association between the occurrence of SARS and older adult suicide, they evaluated Coroner Court reports to provide empirical evidence about the relationship between SARS and the excessive number of suicide deaths among the elderly.

Their results showed that SARS-related older adult suicide victims were more likely to be afraid of contracting the disease and had fears of disconnection. The suicide motives among SARS-related suicide deaths were more closely associated with stress over fears of being a burden to their families during the negative impact of the epidemic. Social disengagement, mental stress, and anxiety at the time of the SARS epidemic among a certain group of older adults resulted in an exceptionally high rate of suicide deaths.


Link to Providentia coverage.
Link to DOI entry and summary of study.

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