Roy Exum: More Suicides Than Virus

Monday, March 30, 2020 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

In a week where six Tennesseans died of the coronavirus, it is disheartening indeed to learn more people in our state died of suicide last week. While the actual number of those who took their lives across the state isn’t yet known, the fact that nine in Knoxville died by their own hand within a 48-hour period last week is frightening.

What is worst is the prediction the coronavirus could kill as many as 200,000 Americans by the time it is corralled this summer, yet very silently it will create “a perfect storm” for those most susceptible to suicide in Tennessee and elsewhere. The threat of soaring suicide rates is just as real and as genuine as the virus, yet hardly on that scale, and the state of Tennessee has been woefully negligent of our growing mental health crisis for years.

Our mental health experts warn us the top causes of suicide in adults include prolonged exposure to stress, life and role transitions, a history of neglect, and seemingly insurmountable financial burden. Add those into a boiling cauldron where we are staggered by daily COVID-19 numbers, desperate opioid addicts, and the suddenly jobless who are unable to provide for their families. We are shuttered-in-place with our fears and our worries.

We are ordered to distance ourselves from anyone else, our children can’t play with others, and our lives are most likely altered for years. Our churches are closed, along with almost every outdoors and recreation facility, by those horribly inept of the human condition. People are urged to stay inside, to wear face masks and, for God’s sake, we don’t hug one another or go within six feet of another. We don’t dare shake hands. Our groceries are delivered, depriving us from further seeing signs of life, and “cabin fever” – which is very real – is now pandemic as well.

During the Great Crash of 1929, suicides were at an all-time high for Americans. In 1929 it was 17.0 per 100,000 and by 1932 it had risen to 21.3. In comparison, today the American economy is suddenly far worse. During the Great Depression there were 665,000 unemployment claims in one week – for years thought to be the Mount Everest by measure – a cursed mark thought to be never equaled. But just this month a record 3.3 million Americans have filed for unemployment.

Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, was hardly surprised and, until our economy can function properly, she said, “It could be that over 10 million people could lose their jobs by June, so these claims are going to be coming in steady."

Several days ago, Knox County (Knoxville) Mayor Glenn Jacobs told a reporter for the online news source,, “Thus far, our reaction to COVID-19 has been to sacrifice the global economy,” he said. “The truth is: a sick economy produces sick people.”

Jacobs, shaken by the uptake, explained, “Last year, our medical examiner performed autopsies for 199 confirmed or suspected suicides from across the region, with 83 of those coming from Knox County. Over the past 48 hours that office has now examined nine suspected suicides, eight of which are from Knox County alone. For Knox County, that’s almost 10 percent of last year’s total number in the past two days alone.”

He wonders if we are taking the right approach in our fears. “Is what we are doing now really the best? How can we respond to COVID-19 in a way that keeps our economy intact, keeps people employed, and empowers our people with a feeling of hope and optimism, not desperation and despair?” he asked.

Dr. Martha Buchanan, director of the Knox County Health Department, was emotional in a televised statement. “(The rash of suicides) are startling and disturbing and really, really challenging to think about how some of the things we have to do as a community right now could be contributing to these things,” she said. “The more important message today that I want to deliver is that now, more than ever, we need to be kinder and gentler with ourselves and with each other. If there’s anybody out there who’s struggling, I encourage you to reach out.”

Just last month the Tennessee General Assembly has declared youth suicide at a crisis level in the state, this shortly before the coronavirus pushed all other pressing needs and cares temporarily off the table. Compelling data from the Tennessee Department of Health presented evidence that documented 508 Tennessee teens have died by suicide since 2009. The department defines youth suicide from age 10 to 19 (the third-leading cause of death for that age demographic in the state).

Rep. Rick Staples, D-Knoxville, wrote the joint House resolution that Governor Bill Lee signed in early February. "I have cared for young people and know their struggles," Rep. Staples said. "I have been involved in mentoring males for roughly 20 years. I have watched a different series of changes. Everything that was negative in life was affecting young people, even committing suicide. I have been talking about it for five years and something needed to be led out of the dark."

In his first State of the State address, Governor Lee said he was eager to invest $250 million in a K-12 student mental health trust fund (remember, this was before the coronavirus got its grip; now many changes must take place, but suicide will sadly remain and be part of the outcome.) There are 973,659 K-12 students enrolled in Tennessee’s public schools. If that money was allocated to each student it would be approximately $256, but Governor Lee said that it would serve as one-time funds to support the growth and placement of mental health support services in the state's most-at-risk schools.

One in five children has a mental health diagnosis in a year; 60 percent of children who receive mental health services do so in schools, Governor Lee said. "It creates a nightmare decision for the teacher," the governor explained in his State of the State speech. "When a student is struggling, they can either stop the learning process for everyone else in the classroom to help the one student or ignore that student’s needs."

The legislature’s commitment to youth suicide was tremendous but suddenly the mental disease has gained a far-greater stage. The coronavirus will devastate many families, leaving overwhelming mental anguish and, candidly, great despair in its wake. Before the virus, suicide rates were up 40 percent in the last 17 years. What lies ahead for our fellow Americans is fearsome, and just as deadly unless we reach out to our fragile.

It behooves each of us to seek out those who suffer, to encourage and minster to those whose lives are challenged with more than they think they can bear. Coronavirus deaths will easily outdistance suicides, probably this week, but let’s not forget the week that suicides led the state and to share hope is something all of us can do starting right now.

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