April 13 (UPI) -- Suicide rates in regions of the United States and the world remained flat or even declined during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a study published Tuesday by The Lancet Psychiatry.
Through the end of July 2020, up to 20% fewer suicides were reported in parts of the southern and western United States compared with what would have been expected based on prior years, the data showed.
Rates of suicide declined by up to 50% in Germany and by around 25% in several countries in Latin America, even as COVID-19 cases and deaths there soared, the researchers said.
Still, the figures provide only a "snapshot" of suicide rates in these countries and the effects of the pandemic could be felt in the months and years to come, they said.
"We know that many people have had their lives changed dramatically by the pandemic, and the journey for some of them is ongoing," study co-author Jane Pirkis said in a press release.
"Increasing mental health services and suicide prevention programs and providing financial safety nets may help to prevent the possible longer-term detrimental effects of the pandemic on suicide," said Pirkis, director of the Center for Mental Health at the University of Melbourne in Australia.
Previous studies have documented a rise in mental health problems in the United States and globally since the start of the pandemic more than a year ago.
Some diagnoses of disorders such as anxiety and depression have been attributed to financial stresses caused by lockdown measures aimed at containing virus spread.
However, research also suggests that the virus itself may have serious neurological complications and cause mental health problems in survivors long after they have recovered.
For this study, Pirkis and her colleagues analyzed trends in 21 countries between April 1 and July 31 last year, and compared them with trends in the previous one to four years.
The research team included more than 70 authors from 30 countries, all of whom are members of the International COVID-19 Suicide Prevention Research Collaboration, which was created to share knowledge about the impact of the pandemic on suicide and suicidal behavior.
They used real-time suicide data obtained from official government sources to determine whether trends in monthly suicide counts changed after the pandemic began.
To do so, they compared numbers of monthly suicides before the rise of COVID-19, which they estimated using modelling of available data from as far back as 2016, they said.
No evidence of an increase in suicide numbers existed in the early months of the pandemic in any of the countries included in the analysis, according to the researchers.
In 12 areas -- including California, Cook County in Illinois and four counties in Texas -- evidence showed a decrease in suicide, compared to the expected numbers based on prior years.
For California, rates of suicide between April 1 and July 31 last year fell by about 10%, compared with prior years, while they dropped by some 20% in the areas of Illinois and Texas included in the analysis, the researchers said.
Slight increases in the suicide rates were reported in Louisiana, New Jersey and Puerto Rico over the same period, they said.
Meanwhile, regions of western Canada included in the analysis saw up to 20% declines in suicide rates last spring and summer, while parts of Australia had around 10% reductions.
Leipzig, Germany, had a 51% drop in its suicide rate during the early stages of the pandemic -- the largest in the study -- while Botucatu in Brazil had the highest increase, at about 78%, the researchers said.
However, the study did not include low- or lower-middle-income countries, which account for 46% of the world's suicides and might have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic, according to the researchers.
"Suicide is not the only indicator of the negative mental health effects of the pandemic -- levels of community distress are high, and we need to ensure that people are supported," Pirkis said.
"There is a need to ensure that efforts that might have kept suicide rates down until now are continued, and to remain vigilant as the longer-term mental health and economic consequences of the pandemic unfold," she said.