In a March 24 press briefing on COVID-19, President Trump warned that if the United States doesn’t end mandatory social distancing by Easter (April 10), the continued loss of economic activity could cause “suicides by the thousands.”

Professors from Teachers College and Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health quickly challenged the president. In an opinion piece published the following day in The New York Daily News (Careful how you talk about suicide, Mr. President: Experts chide Trump on coronavirus, the economy and depression), they warned, first, that the president’s address “might send a mistaken message” that suicide is an expected and “recognized way for dealing with economic hardship,” and second that a premature return to business as usual would likely exact a far greater toll.

While agreeing that “financial and job loss are acute risk factors” for suicide, the authors, Louis Klarevas and Sonali Rajan of Teachers College, and Charles Branas and Katherine Keyes of the Mailman School of Public Health, noted that when celebrities such as Robin Williams have taken their own lives, the media coverage is often followed by a wave of “copycat” suicides. “Suicide contagion has been observed in many countries, leading numerous health authorities, including the WHO and the CDC, to issue guidance on how to responsibly discuss and report on suicide,” the TC and Mailman faculty members wrote.

The authors also cited epidemiological models suggesting that if social distancing protocols are lifted too soon in a bid to put Americans back to work, “the number of deaths associated with the novel coronavirus could increase by upwards of 2 million people.” 

“The president is worried that the cure might be worse than the problem. Yet most experts believe that the outcomes will be disastrous if we privilege financial gain over human loss,” the authors concluded. 

Louis Klarevas is a Research Professor at Teachers College, Columbia University who studies gun violence. He is the author of Rampage Nation: Securing America from Mass Shootings (Prometheus Books 2016). Sonali Rajan is an Associate Professor of Health Education at Teachers College and a school violence prevention expert who studies gun violence and adverse childhood experiences. Charles Branas is the Gelman Endowed Professor and chair of the Department of Epidemiology at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. Katherine M. Keyes is Associate Professor of epidemiology at the Mailman School.