Researchers at the University of Hong Kong on Tuesday said their suicide warning index recently rose to an unprecedented "crisis level", with elderly people more at risk of taking their own lives during this fifth wave of Covid infections.
The Suicide Early Warning System had a daily estimate of suicides of 1.69 on February 23, and as the number of Covid infections climbed over the following weeks, the estimate hit 4.05 on March 21. The average figure over the past year was 1.8.
The March 21 figure was the highest since the system was created in 2020, although the daily estimate has since dropped again.
Paul Yip from the university's Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention said social distancing measures have affected people's mental health and elderly people are particularly vulnerable.
He said eight people aged 65 and above committed suicide in the past seven days and it’s estimated that 400 senior citizens will take their lives this year -- double the number last year.
“Social distancing [measures] have introduced not only physical distancing but also emotional disconnectedness. I think it’s this emotional disconnectedness that leads to the sense of isolation, a sense of being abandoned by family members or by community. It has an adverse impact on our mental health,” he told an online press conference.
“For the elderly people, if they live by themselves, I think the community can proactively engage with them,” Yip added.
Also at the press conference, the group Suicide Prevention Services said it handled some 220,000 calls in January and February and on average nine per day came from an elderly person.
It said elderly people are worried about getting infected with Covid and are therefore scared of meeting relatives during the pandemic. Their sense of crisis would also increase if they or their family members contracted Covid-19, and that could trigger suicide, the group warned.
Justin Leung, a programme manager with the service, added that most elderly people aren’t tech savvy and it’s difficult for them to find out more information about the pandemic.
“It’s very complicated for the elderly. It’s difficult for them to learn in a short period of time,” he said.
Yip called on the government to relax social distancing measures and reopen leisure facilities as soon as possible to improve the mental well-being of the people.
He also said the media should release more positive messages to help reduce people’s anxiety.