Suicides in Minnesota decreased in 2020 to 723, the lowest number since 2014, Minnesota health officials said Wednesday.

Although that's down from the record high 830 suicides in 2019, it marks the sixth consecutive year when there were more than 700 suicides.

"It's a good sign to see that number drop, but 723 preventable deaths are 723 too many," said Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm. "We are not yet sure what impacts the COVID-19 pandemic had on this trend, but it is clear that we must continue to support people and communities to address the causes of suicide."

The pandemic's disruption to normal life led to concerns that there would be more suicides last year. But Daniel Reidenberg, executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education said that social bonds were strengthened, which had an impact on suicides.

"Despite what was discussed in the media throughout the year of the pandemic, the reality was that people were trying to and in fact being more connected than they had in the past," he said. "If you were worried about somebody … you really stepped up your efforts."

State and federal regulators also made it easier to do mental health therapy sessions electronically, which could have also contributed to the decrease in suicides, Reidenberg said.

However, there are still reports of shortages of mental health professionals, especially psychiatrists.

Suicides decreased in all age groups except those 65 and older, with suicide deaths increasing in that group from 123 in 2019 to 147 in 2020.

"They are already isolated and they became more isolated," said Reidenberg, noting that some may have feared the effects of COVID-19.

The overall decrease in suicides came at a time when other preventable "deaths of despair" increased in Minnesota, with 1,008 drug overdose deaths and 992 deaths linked to alcohol use in 2020, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

Over the past 20 years, suicides have been steadily increasing in Minnesota and the nation, the Health Department said. Suicides are the eighth-leading cause of death in Minnesota and are one factor why overall life expectancy may be declining, according to the health agency.

"2020 was a year of extraordinary challenges, and the impact to Minnesotans is one we will need to explore on a deeper level," said Stefan Gingerich, a suicide epidemiologist with the Minnesota Department of Health. "While we are encouraged by the reduction in deaths by suicide this past year, given the high number of suicides each year we must remain vigilant and proactive in our prevention efforts."

Reidenberg said there needs to be more research, education and training on suicide prevention, as well as more investment in the mental health care system.

"We have to continue to address the awareness issues to address stigma," he said. "Stigma keeps people from seeking help. When they reach out for help we've got to make sure that it is available."

The Health Department said the numbers released Wednesday do not include Minnesotans who were pronounced dead outside Minnesota borders as that data is not yet available. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.

Glenn Howatt • 612-673-7192

Twitter: @GlennHowatt