April 29, 2021

There is a rope shop in Covent Garden that, back in 2011, I loitered outside on two or three occasions, trying to summon up the courage to go in, a bit like a 17 year old boy outside a sex shop. Thankfully, I never did. But even now, when I pass that way, a chill still flows through me. It was a close call. I would imagine who might find me, and how it might affect them.

Foolishly, I had allowed myself too much mental permission to fantasise about the where and the how. And, for a while, even this felt like a strange form of hope — a way of doing something about the darkness. At the end of a rope, everything would be forgotten.

Over the past year, suicide has become part of the public discourse about the lockdown. I do not want to conscript the pain of others, in all its harrowing specificity, into some general argument about whether the lockdown has caused a spike in suicide. But we have all heard so many examples of heart-breaking human misery that have been linked with the disruption. And, for some, there will surely have been a connection: jobs lost, crushing loneliness, more drinking, disrupted care, and worst of all domestic abuse. Indeed, in my pastoral role as a parish priest, I have been extremely worried about the declining mental health of some in my community, and where it might end up.

Politicians, from all shades of opinion, have tended to agree. “Suicides are up” insisted President Joe Biden, one of the few things with which he agreed with his predecessor. Just days after the first lockdown was announced, President Trump had warned of “suicides by the thousands”.

But the strange thing is that if you look at the data, it is not at all clear that lockdown has increased the rate of suicide. In an article published last month in the British Medical Journal, “What has been the effect of covid-19 on suicide rates”, Louis Appleby, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Manchester, writes that reports from several countries, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Norway, Peru, Sweden and the US, “carry [a] consistent message. Suicide rates have not risen”.

A recent paper in The Lancet Psychiatry reached a similar conclusion: “Suicide numbers … remained largely unchanged or declined in the early months of the pandemic.” And the same seems to be true about figures coming in from this country too. Only Japan seems to have experienced a statistically verifiable jump in the suicide rate.

There are caveats, of course. One suicide is a suicide too may, and for those who have lost loved ones, the wider statistical evidence and the overall numbers are all rather beside the point. Moreover, in this country, suicide is the leading cause of death for men under the age of 45 — over 6,000 people die of it every year in the UK.

But, on a societal level, there may be something significant going on here nonetheless. The narrative that lockdown leads to suicide feels intuitively convincing, but it is a narrative not backed up by evidence. Could there be another story to tell?

Professor Appleby allows himself cautiously to speculate: “Perhaps, as well as the risks, there have been protections. We may have been more careful in lockdown to stay in touch, more alert to warning signs. In the face of a crisis, there may have been a greater sense of community, of getting through it together. Perhaps a belief too that it would soon be over, so that the distress that many felt did not become that most dangerous of moods, despair.”

This makes some sense to me. When I was at my lowest, standing outside that rope shop, I felt so profoundly alone. Yes, that was mostly my doing; like others in this situation, I did my best to push people away. But I would scroll through the numbers in my mobile phone and not have a clue who I might call. They were all busy getting on with their lives — why would I burden them with my bleakness? But the funny thing about lockdown is that there is a much greater sense that we are all going through it together. And this allows us to speak about our pain in a more open way.

Over lockdown, my modest church community has grown in numbers and attendance. Before it all began, our little midweek communion service would attract two or three at best. This week we had over a dozen in church and nearly 20 on zoom. And the nature of the conversations people have been having with each other before and after the service feel so much more mutually supportive. I am not citing this as evidence that there is some mini-religious revival going on in South London; more that people are keen to seek each other out, and speak more openly about what they are going through. In this little corner of the world at least, I believe we have become a much more supportive community. There is a different quality to the words “You alright?” — now more a genuine question than a simple greeting.

And yes, hope too. I will inevitably gloss this as a religious thing — I am a priest, after all. But for all that people have gone through, there remains a sense that, as St Paul put it in his letter to the Romans: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” Okay, for some of us, this glory is a white table cloth and a fancy menu — or something equally secular-sounding.

But these things do channel hope. As it happens, my favorite Soho Italian restaurant, Vasco and Piero’s Pavilion, has just closed down after 40 years. Passing by this week, their familiar welcoming sign has come down and the tables and chairs were being ripped out, a miserable scene. The landlord wouldn’t budge on the rent, and they could survive no longer. Yet for all this, they tweeted out yesterday, defiantly: “We will be back!!”

I don’t know how to evidence hope – it’s very different from optimism, for example. More about attitude than expectation, perhaps. But put it this way, I felt this year’s Easter resurrection sermon had a lot more people nodding and Alleluia-ing than in previous years. The challenge for the church — and for others too — will be not to allow this rising sense of hope to wash away all that solidarity in joint adversity that has bonded so many of us over this last year.

One must be cautious about suicide statistics, and what they explain or don’t. But I, too, can’t help but wonder whether the reason they have not spiked is that we have found, in our various little platoons, religious or otherwise, more determined ways of sharing each other’s burdens.

You can call Samaritans for free on 116 123, email them at [email protected], or visit www.samaritans.org to find your nearest branch.

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