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Pandemic misery causes big spike in suicides in Thailand

Economic fallout of Covid-19 blamed for a trend that revives memories of the 1997 Asian financial crisis
Pandemic misery causes big spike in suicides in Thailand

Two Buddha statues are pictured at the Buddhist temple Wat Samphran (Dragon Temple) in Nakhon Pathom, west of Bangkok. Thailand has seen an alarming rise in suicides linked to the Covid-19 pandemic. (Photo: AFP)

Published: September 12, 2020 04:29 AM GMT
Updated: September 12, 2020 04:30 AM GMT

An alarming increase in the number of suicides in Thailand in recent months has been linked by health officials to the economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic, which has battered the country’s once robust economy. 

In the first six months of 2020, at least 2,551 people killed themselves in the Southeast Asian nation in what was a 22 percent increase over the same period last year, according to newly released data from the country’s Mental Health Department.

The last time such a dramatic increase in the rate of suicides was documented was after the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which saw millions of Thais lose their savings overnight.

“This increase is similar to the increase in suicides during the Tom Yum Kung Crisis 23 years ago,” said Kiatiphum Wongrajit, head of the Mental Health Department. “There had been an increase of 20 to 30 percent in suicides in the three years after the crisis.”

Thailand’s economy has faced colossal losses this year owing to severe downturns in the key tourism, services and export sectors. The Bank of Thailand predicts that the economy will likely shrink by nearly 10 percent by the end of this year compared to last year.

Many of the worst-affected people from the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic have been low-income earners who have lost their jobs in recent months and can now ill afford to support themselves and their families with no steady incomes.

However, some health experts have noted that suicide is a complex psychological phenomenon in most cases and rarely has a single cause. Substance abuse, depression, problems in personal relationships and other causes all drive people to kill themselves or attempt to do so.

Chronic financial hardships can, however, exacerbate the psychological impact of other underlying cases and serve as “a trigger for suicide,” according to Amornthep Sachamuneewongse, a prominent mental health advocate who is developing a smartphone app as a suicide hotline.

“For example, if someone already has severe economic problems, then Covid-19 makes the situation more severe and puts them under more stress,” Amornthep said.

A recent Oxford University study on the emotional impacts of the pandemic warned about the long-term psychological effects of lockdowns and widespread job losses. 

“The Covid-19 crisis may increase suicide rates during and after the pandemic,” the researchers behind the study noted. “Mental health consequences of the Covid-19 crisis including suicidal behaviors are likely to be present for a long time and peak later than the actual pandemic.”

Already in March, just as a nationwide lockdown began to take effect in Thailand, a team of researchers at Chiang Mai University in northern Thailand linked 38 suicide attempts, of which 28 resulted in deaths, to increased levels of stress from the unfolding pandemic and its economic impacts.

The researchers laid some of the blame for increasing despair among many Thais on inadequate government measures to help newly unemployed people in a country where an adequate social safety net is unavailable to most of the neediest people. 

“Suicide cases indicate the government’s gross failure in handling the situation,” the Thai researchers said. “Some people were driven to take their own lives.”

Other experts say that the situation has since become even worse with the economic prospects of millions of poor Thais remaining bleak for the foreseeable future.

Many suicidal Thais “need urgent help,” including professional counseling, Kiatiphum warned.

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