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Fear triggered by coronavirus hype may kill its victims faster than the pandemic

Irrational and all-encompassing fear of the coronavirus pandemic is racking up its own body count, sometimes faster than the disease. An Italian nurse has joined the growing ranks of coronavirus-triggered suicides.

Daniela Trezzi, an intensive care nurse at the San Gerardo Hospital in Italy’s hard-hit Lombardy region who was diagnosed with coronavirus earlier this month, killed herself on Sunday. She was terrified that she had infected some of the very people she was trying so desperately to help, the National Federation of Nurses of Italy said in a statement on Tuesday confirming her death. Trezzi had been quarantined since her diagnosis on March 10.

Terrified of spreading Covid-19

It’s not hard to imagine how the sudden and prolonged isolation of quarantine, especially coming after long grueling shifts caring for the sick, could fuel a toxic cycle of guilt and recrimination. Authorities are investigating her death, but even the most psychologically healthy among us can be worn down quickly by isolation; there’s a reason much of the world bans solitary confinement in prisons on humanitarian grounds.

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Nor was Trezzi the first Italian nurse to take their own life out of fear of spreading the epidemic they’d devoted themselves to fighting. Without including a name, the nurses’ group acknowledged in their statement on Tuesday that “a similar episode [of suicide] had happened a week ago in Venice, with the same underlying reasons.” About eight percent of Italy’s coronavirus cases are medical workers, according to the Gimbe Foundation, which estimated that 5,760 medical professionals had tested positive for the disease as of Tuesday.

Impact of isolation

If fears surrounding the virus are driving medical workers to suicide, one would expect to see laypeople being scared to death as well. And they are: on Sunday, an autistic young British woman died, just days after her own coronavirus-motivated suicide attempt left her in critical condition.

Nineteen-year-old waitress Emily Owen was found seriously ill after attempting suicide earlier this month, but never recovered; her family removed her from life support on Sunday. Owen had reportedly warned her relatives she was petrified of “her world closing in, plans being canceled and being stuck inside” as coronavirus brought her normal routines to a screeching halt.

More people will die from suicide during this than the virus itself,” Owen reportedly told family in the days before she attempted to end her life.

Fears over diagnosis

K. Bala Krishna, a 50-year-old Indian man, didn’t have coronavirus when he hanged himself last month after experiencing flu-like symptoms – but he thought he did. Convinced he had the disease after doctors at a nearby clinic sent him home with a diagnosis of viral fever, Krishna quarantined himself in his room and fell deeper into depression after reportedly binge-watching videos about coronavirus.

Finally, desperate not to spread the disease to his family or neighbors in the Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh, he slipped out of his family’s house and ended his life in the graveyard where his mother was buried. 

While Krishna had the dubious distinction of being named as the first coronavirus suicide since the epidemic made headlines in Wuhan in December, there’s no way to know how many other people have included the spreading epidemic when weighing the decision to end their lives.

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Calls to the US National Suicide Prevention Hotline have reportedly increased 300 percent as government-mandated quarantines force people into isolation, while the Crisis Text Line reported on Wednesday that it conducted twice as many counseling sessions as normal over the previous week. Other local suicide-prevention hotlines have reported their own spikes in traffic.

Advice to stave off isolation by chatting over the phone or internet with loved ones doesn’t quite bridge the gap for many. Humans are social creatures and the added stresses of job losses and financial worries can’t necessarily be solved by a chat with Mom.

Even US President Donald Trump has taken notice of the problem, channeling poor Emily Owen with his warning earlier this week that a prolonged shutdown of the US economy would cause “suicides by the thousands… in far greater numbers than the numbers that we’re talking about with regard to the virus.”

Social distancing” has no doubt saved some lives, but it could be ending others.

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