Trump was probably wrong about Coronavirus and suicides, but the associated press messed up the fact check
On Tuesday, President Trump warned that if the country were to be shut down, people could be forced to commit suicide through a recession and the number of deaths “probably, and I mean, sure, will be in much greater numbers than what we’re talking about regarding the virus. “
To the extent that Trump suggested that the economic costs of fighting the coronavirus are likely to cause more suicides than deaths from the disease if the U.S. government were to do nothing, he is almost certainly wrong. Last year, there were about 50,000 suicides in the United States. Even if this number increased dramatically, it would be very difficult to match the estimated deaths of COVID-19, which are in the hundreds of thousands or even millions below the unfavorable do-no projections. If aggressive countermeasures to curtail the coronavirus’ reduce COVID-19’s death toll to a bad flu season – the result many hope for – you would still have a problem at least as serious as the national suicide rate.
But while Trump probably exaggerated the tradeoff here, the Associated Press– Which published a fact check of the President’s comments – went too far in the opposite direction: to significantly underestimate the possibility that suicides would increase if protracted social distancing measures lead to a sustained economic downturn.
“There is no evidence that suicide rates will rise dramatically as rural, social distance guidelines that many companies have closed and are expected to spike unemployment,” wrote the AP, This comment is preceded by the heading “THE FACTS”.
This is technically true because we have not been able to perform this exact experiment in some kind of laboratory. But suicides do tend to rise during periods of economic turmoil. During the first year of the Great Depression, suicides in the United States rose from about 14 per 100,000 people to 18 per 100,000. In 1932 – the last full year of depression – the suicide rate reached its all-time high of 22 per 100,000.
The AP is aware of this fact, but weirdly dismisses it with this line: “The even higher suicide rate during the Great Depression of the 1930s dropped sharply with the onset of World War II.” Cold comfort is that an even bigger crisis caused a decline in suicide rates a decade later. The AP cites an expert who claims that “war and natural disasters” are causing society to contract and thus reduce suicides, but a man-made crisis resulting from deliberate government action to shut down the economy is not war and not a natural disaster either.
Another fact check of Trump’s comments on suicide, published from ABC News, was much more responsible with his claims:
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide deaths have risen every year since 1999, but it’s still “selective” for the president to stick to that, says Richard Dunn, an associate professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of Connecticut, who has studied the link between markets and depression.
“The general fact that President Trump cited is in fact true that when suicide contracts increase,” said Dunn, who acknowledged how the financial crisis of the early 2000s caused more suicides, “but that’s not the only cause of death responding to the economic downturn. “
“If you looked at all the current causes of death in a recession, you would see that the number of deaths actually decreases. Heart deaths from heart disease fall. Deaths from motor vehicle accidents fall,” added Dunn. “One of the few activities that we have left to us in many parts of the country is to go for a walk, so physical activity often increases.”
“So we actually see overall that there are fewer deaths from the economic downturn – but suicide is the only major cause of death that doesn’t follow that pattern,” Dunn said.
It is one thing to say that Trump exaggerated the likely impact on the suicide rate. It is quite another to say that the impact is something we would have no reason at all for.