Study: Despite predictions, US suicides declined in 2020

Study: Despite predictions, US suicides declined in 2020
Source: Joshua Roberts, Reuters
In total, there were 3,358,814 deaths in the US in 2020, an increase of 503,976 from 2019, which had 2,854,838 deaths.

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) has revealed the leading causes of death in the United States for 2020.

Unsurprisingly, in a year that was largely defined by the COVID-19 pandemic, total deaths in the US were dramatically higher than in previous years, with 2020’s 3,358,814 deaths more than 500,000 more than the number seen in 2019.

The leading cause of death in the US in 2020 was not COVID-19, though the coronavirus did account for the third most deaths. Instead, heart disease and cancer were once again the first and second leading causes of death, continuing a trend that has held for many years.

One hopeful statistic in the data is that the number of suicides declined in 2020 from 2019 levels. In fact, the recorded number of suicides was at its lowest level since 2015. It’s a positive statistic in a year that has not seen many and one that counters a prevailing narrative that arose this year. Namely, that lockdowns and lack of social interactions were fueling an underreported epidemic of suicide.

“The Leading Causes of Death in the US for 2020”

Published in JAMA on March 31, “The Leading Causes of Death in the US for 2020” is a report compiled by Farida B. Ahmad, MPH and Robert N. Anderson, Ph.D., both with the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). The data was culled from the National Vital Statistics System (NVSS), an intergovernmental system for compiling health data for the US population.

The study relied on death certificates filed in all 50 states and Washington, DC. The cause of deaths are “based on the underlying cause of death, which is the disease or condition responsible for initiating the chain of events leading to death.” As such, while a deceased person may have multiple existing health conditions, the data records the most relevant condition.

Noting that the pandemic has increased the need for information on causes of death, the authors of the study call the NVSS information “reliable provisional mortality data.” Which is to say, the data is as accurate as can be assessed at this current moment, but there is a possibility that the statistics will be revised in the future once more information is available.

In total, there were 3,358,814 deaths in the US in 2020, an increase of 503,976 from 2019, which had 2,854,838 deaths. That represents a 17.7% increase from 2019 to 2020. That’s a dramatic uptick after a five-year trend in which deaths increased by an average of 35,500 per year.

There were officially 345,323 COVID-19 deaths in 2020, which certainly accounts for much of the increase in total deaths, but by no means all of them. Separate studies of “excess mortality” (i.e., total deaths over the expected amount under normal conditions) have suggested that COVID-19 deaths have been undercounted.

The 10 leading causes of death in the US

In 2020, heart disease continued to be the leading cause of death in the US. There were 690,882 deaths due to heart disease, an increase from 659,041 in 2019. Like total deaths, the nearly 32,000 (5%) increase in heart disease-related deaths was a considerable jump following the recent trend in which the increase from year to year was never more than 2%.

Deaths related to cancer, the second leading cause of death in the US, actually dropped slightly from 2019, though the difference is negligible. In 2020, there were 598,932 cancer-related deaths, compared to 599,601 in 2019. The rate of cancer-related deaths in the US per year has been holding steady in the range of 599,000 since 2016.

After COVID-19, the next seven leading causes of death for the US were as follows: unintentional injuries (192,176), stroke (159,050), chronic lower respiratory diseases (151,637), Alzheimer’s disease (133,382), diabetes (101,106), influenza and pneumonia (53,495) and kidney disease (52,260).

Most of these causes of death experienced an increase from their 2019 levels, except for chronic lower respiratory diseases, which dropped from 156,979 the previous year.

Suicides in the US in 2020

The high number of COVID-19 deaths pushed suicide out of the Top 10 leading causes of death for the first time in well over a decade. Nonetheless, at 44,834 suicides in 2020, self-harm remains one of the most common causes of death in the US.

However, the total number of suicides dropped from 47,511 in 2019, itself a decline from 48,344 in 2018. In fact, the last year to have fewer suicide deaths than 2020 was 2015, in which there were 44,193 suicides.

The decline in suicides from 2019 to 2020 is especially notable because leading scientific authorities had expressed fears early in the pandemic that the resulting lockdowns and social isolation could cause a spike in the number of suicides.

Additionally, fear over a rise in the suicide rate had often been cited by politicians as a reason for opposing strict lockdowns and social distancing guidelines.

In February, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican who has been simultaneously praised and pilloried for his state’s response to the pandemic, called lockdowns “pseudoscientific,” saying they were responsible for “increased deaths from suicide, substance abuse and despair.”

Though a potential revision of the data in the future could change our understanding of 2020 and the effects of COVID-19, based on the findings of this study, it appears some of the grimmest predictions about the pandemic’s mental health effects did not pan out.

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