Future Tense

That Viral Tweet About Suicide Rates in the Pandemic Is Wrong and Dangerous

It was debunked months ago. Here’s why it’s still spreading.

The silhouette of a woman standing in front of a window with the blinds closed.
It’s true that people are feeling lonely. Nate Neelson/Unsplash

On Thursday, a social media post from Jake Tapper included an odd call to action, at least for a CNN anchor: “could 2 followers please copy and re-post this tweet?”

The rest of the text contained an alarming, if vague, statement about mental health, along with further specific instructions for sharing:

As might be obvious, Tapper didn’t write this himself. It’s also not quite accurate.

Tapper’s tweet is a slight mutation of one that’s been making the rounds for months and has recently had a resurgence.

Back in June, a tweet stating that “suicide figures are up 200% since lockdown,” with the same call to action as Tapper’s and the phone number for a hotline in the U.K., went viral. Shayan Sardarizadeh, who covers disinformation for the BBC, fact-checked that figure at the time, finding no evidence that suicides had gone up—national suicide rates for 2020 in the U.K. had not even been released at that point, given that the year hadn’t ended. (A report from September that has been released since looks at rates in 2019). Still, the tweet is not quite false, depending on what you consider a “suicide figure”: Sardarizadeh noted in a post on BBC News’ live reporting blog that the person who first posted the 200 percent figure cited a TV report discussing calls to a help line.

But stating that “suicide figures are up” without specifying what one means by that isn’t a neutral statement. It’s designed to be alarming. Consider what it would mean to share the actual fact that calls to a suicide hotline are up. Yes, that sounds concerning. But it’s worth noting that “suicide hotlines” serve more than just people at immediate risk of harming themselves; you can also reach out to the number in Tapper’s tweet, for example, if you are concerned about a loved one “or would like emotional support,” according to the Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s website. And increased calls to hotlines—no matter the reason—could be an indication that they are doing exactly what they are designed to do: help people who need it.

While it’s natural—and good—to worry about the mental health effects of the pandemic, the supposition without evidence that lockdown is leading to an actual increase in suicides is a political one (as well as one that goes against recommendations for reporting on suicide—the advice is not to exaggerate statistics). Still-president-for-now Donald Trump claimed in March that there would be “suicide by the thousands” if lockdown continued. In October, E.R. doctor (and Slate contributor) Jeremy Faust, along with colleagues, published a preprint paper evaluating what actually happened with suicides in Massachusetts, where he works. He explained the results in the Washington Post:

No matter how we looked, we kept finding the same thing. Suicide rates did not budge during the stay-at-home advisory period (March 23 until a phased reopening began in late May) in Massachusetts, which had one of the longest such periods of any state in the nation.

The caveat is “studying the effects of stay-at-home advisories is still in its infancy,” as Faust writes in the Post. He and Tapper had a little back-and-forth on Twitter on Thursday, in which Tapper pointed to more recent data, from report on veterans and suicide. Faust and another doctor noted that the report actually showed that there was no increase in suicide among veterans during the pandemic. It’s possible that the tweet will at some terrible point come true, and suicide rates have been rising recent years. But at the moment, it is, in part, a dangerous argument against asking people to stay home. (I’ve reached out to Twitter to ask if it has considered putting a misinformation label on tweets that are, at least, misleading in their claims that suicide rates are up, but they haven’t gotten back to me with an answer.) On Twitter, the phrase “suicide rates are up” has been posted with a poll on whether we should or shouldn’t have “lockdown”—itself a divisive term for the partial closure of businesses—and as a refrain in response to fears about gathering on Thanksgiving.

Part of me wants to have a more generous read on the tweet, too, at least the version in its earnest, copy-pasted Tapper form. Calls to copy-paste text related to mental health “to demonstrate that someone is always listening” is a format that’s been circulating on Facebook for years. I read Tapper’s tweet initially the same way that I read those posts when I see them pop up on my feed from well-meaning relatives: as a sincere but ultimately not hugely helpful performance of empathy. It’s resurgence now, in this form, is evidence that a lot of people right now are feeling mentally worn down by the pandemic, and maybe a little lonely. At least, that’s how I feel myself. Feel free to copy and paste that.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

Update, Nov. 13, 2020: This article was updated to include an example of the viral tweet invoking the coronavirus lockdowns, to better reflect Tapper’s Twitter exchange with Jeremy Faust, and to note that suicide rates were on the rise before the pandemic.