In 2013 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced a new epidemic in the United States. Surprisingly, it was not a virus that was killing tens of thousands of Americans—it was suicide. In 2019, suicide was the tenth leading cause of death in the United States, with suicide rates for young people increasing by 56% over a decade. For millennials, those individuals between the ages of 24 and 39, rates of major depression have increased 47% since 2014.
Now, in 2020, the country is in the grips of an international pandemic that overlays the national suicide epidemic; and the Covid-19 pandemic is hitting those most prone to suicide especially hard. Think of mental illness as a pre-existing condition, and the pandemic as a catalyst for increasing the risk of death by suicide.
Every American has been affected by this pandemic. We have lost friends and family from the virus; we have also lost our jobs, our homes, our livelihoods, and our educational opportunities. While the intermediate and long-term effects of social isolation and other emotional influences of coronavirus may not be known for months or years, recent data suggests the pandemic has already had a profound effect on our mental health. Calls to some national suicide hotlines have increased over 1000 percent since the pandemic began, and almost half of all Americans report that that their mental health has been affected by the crisis.
The pandemic has shattered many of the basic assumptions we make about our world, and for people with histories of illnesses affecting emotions, behaviors, and cognitions we see a unique increased vulnerability to the pandemic’s influence. Increasingly, people are presenting to emergency departments with depression, anxiety, substance use disorders (especially alcohol and stimulant abuse), and other mental health problems that are attributed to the influence of the pandemic. Healthcare professionals in both hospital and community mental health programs have noted the seriousness of pandemic related barriers existing for people needing treatment to help them survive. Programs and services that existed prior to Covid-19 may now be offering limited in-person access. Anxiety related to the pandemic prevents many people struggling with mental illness from reaching out to get the help that might normally be more readily available.
We will probably all succumb to brief feelings of hopelessness and helplessness during this pandemic—those feelings are not unusual or abnormal during painful and stressful times and they typically pass relatively quickly. But if you or someone you know is finding that the hopelessness is leading to concerning changes in behaviors (like increased alcohol or substance use), feelings (persistent sadness or anxiety) or thoughts of suicide, please reach out for help. While accessing face-to-face services may be more challenging, getting help remotely (by phone or online) is easier now than it has ever been, and most therapy services can now be accessed through tele-health. If you are concerned about a family member, friend, neighbor, or colleague ask them directly if they are having thoughts of suicide, and then be ready to support them in getting help by having easy access to resources like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Asking someone about thoughts of suicide will not make them suicidal. What it will do is open a conversation about their thoughts and provide an opportunity for them to feel connected to someone who recognizes they are in pain. Just doing so can pave a path to getting professional help quickly.
If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). The Crisis Text Line also provides free, 24/7, confidential support via text message to people in crisis when they text to 741741. Or please call ECHN’s Behavioral Health department to learn about the resources available.
Kirk J. Woodring, LICSW is the east coast regional vice president of behavioral health for Prospect Medical Holdings, Inc. (Eastern Connecticut Health Network) and author of the book Assessing the Risk: Suicidal Behavior in the Hospital Environment of Care.