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Politifact VA: Trump Campaign Claims Coronavirus Measures Driving Up Suicide Rates

T-shirts for sale on a table
Trump Campaign merchandise at an event in Waukesha, Wisconsin. (Photo: WisPolitics.com)

A spokesman for President Trump claims measures taken to prevent the spread of coronavirus are contributing to "skyrocketing" suicide rates. 

TRANSCRIPT

CRAIG:  Warren, President Donald Trump has made it clear that he wants COVID-19 restrictions lifted to refire America’s economy.

To those who say it would cause more deaths, Trump poses a counter argument: Maybe it would save lives.

The president has been suggesting that joblessness and isolation brought on by restrictions is causing more suicides.

Now, his presidential campaign, I understand, is taking this a step further. It’s saying suicides are soaring because of the constraints. Warren, tell us what you’ve got.

WARREN: We're fact-checking a statement by Tim Murtaugh, the communications director of Trump’s campaign. Do you know him?

CRAIG: I know of him, but we’ve never met.

WARREN: Murtaugh has deep Richmond connections. He was a TV reporter here in the 1990s, and then did a couple of stints as press secretary for the state Republican Party.

He was also spokesman for a few statewide Republican candidates and for Jerry Kilgore when he was attorney general from 2002 to 2005.

Murtaugh’s been in D.C. for a number of years. Since joining Trump’s reelection campaign, he’s been a regular guest on conservative radio shows in Virginia.

And in a May 26th interview on WRVA, he said suicide rates are “skyrocketing” because of the restrictions. Here’s the tape:

“You cannot shut the economy down and have it be dormant for an extended period of time. That comes with significant health risks of its own; known health problems that we will get, never mind that we see suicide rates skyrocketing right now because people are in despair, and some of that is economic despair on people. We know that to be the case.”

CRAIG: So tell us, is that the case?

WARREN: The answer is that nobody knows whether U.S. suicide rates have even increased this year - let alone skyrocketed, as Murtaugh says.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention keep national suicide statistics. And this is a lengthy process because the details of each death are examined.

The latest CDC suicide figures are from 2018, so it’ll be some time before we have the data for this year.

I spoke to Jerry Reed, who’s senior vice president at the Education Development Center, a global non-profit that studies suicide and other mental health issues.

His quote: “There is no evidence to suggest suicide rates are increasing.”

Courtney Lenard, a spokeswoman for the CDC, told us, “It’s too soon to know whether COVID-19 is associated with suicide increases.”

CRAIG:  So, what does Murtaugh base his claim on?

WARREN: He sent me three anecdotal news reports.

One was from a California TV station. It quoted the head trauma doctor at a hospital near San Francisco saying he’d seen more suicide attempts in the first four months of this year, than in all of last year.

Another was from a Yakima, Washington, TV station, reporting that the county has seen seven suicides this year - a 30 percent increase over the same time last year. The coroner said he didn’t know why.

The third was from The Daily News in New York. It quoted a district attorney saying that Queens - during May and April - saw about twice as many suicides as usual.

CRAIG: Now, I’d imagine that the threat of suicide increases when we go through major economic slowdowns, like we’re seeing now.

WARREN: You’re absolutely right, and mental health experts are worried. History shows that every 1 percent increase in unemployment brings a 1.6 percent increase in suicide.

So the threat is very real.

There have been increased calls to national suicide hotlines this year, but experts say that may be a good thing because people are seeking help.

They urge people to stay socially connected during the covid crisis by phone, social media, texting, whatever. Stay connected.

CRAIG: Warren, take us back to Murtaugh. He said suicide rates right now are skyrocketing. What’s your rating?

WARREN: There’s great concern because, historically, suicides go up when the economy goes way down.

But there’s no way to know whether suicides are rising this coronavirus year - let alone skyrocketing, as Murtaugh says. National statistics aren’t available and won’t be for some time.

The burden’s on Murtaugh and the Trump campaign to provide broad evidence, and they come up short.

So we rate the statement False.

If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK. That’s 800-273-TALK.