When we talk about the symptoms of COVID-19, trouble breathing, fever, headache, loss of taste and smell, and cough are some that readily come to mind. Whether or not you are personally infected with the virus, it is important to recognize the serious impact of the pandemic on behavioral health in the community including the risk of depression, anxiety, substance use disorders, and suicide.
September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and in advance of the annual healthcare observance, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has released the results of a new survey that found increased levels of symptoms of anxiety and depressive disorders, substance use and suicidal ideation among adults. The survey also identified populations at increased risk, including young people, racial and ethnic minorities, essential workers and caregivers of adults.
“Social distancing and isolation during the pandemic has resulted in extreme loneliness for some people, especially the elderly, who may already be dealing with a variety of mental health conditions such as depression, which can lead to suicide. The economic hardships caused by unemployment, the loss of your own small business, and attempting to meet growing bills, are also contributing to an increase in suicides,” said Dr. Barry Sarvet, chair, of the Department of Psychiatry at Baystate Health.
“Furthermore, there are many individuals in our community who have experienced the loss of a loved one from COVID-19. The normal grieving process necessary for people to heal from losses like this are often disrupted by infection control measures and this increases the risk of depression in bereaved individuals,” he added.
Read the statistics
The CDC survey statistics tell the story:
- 40% of American adults reported experiencing mental or behavioral challenges tied to the COVID-19 crisis and measures including social distancing and stay-at-home orders.
- Nearly 11% of the 5,412 adults surveyed between June 24-30 reported having seriously considered suicide in the 30 days prior.
- The percentage was significantly higher among those between the ages of 18 and 24, with about a quarter saying they considered thoughts of suicide.
- Nearly 31% of unpaid caregivers and 22 percent of essential workers noted they had thoughts about ending their lives. Respondents who are black or Hispanic were also well above average.
Anxiety or depression symptoms were reported by one-third of respondents. Also, some 26.3% reported experiencing trauma and stress-related disorders because of the pandemic.
Mental health conditions are often seen as the cause of suicide, but suicide is rarely caused by any single factor. In fact, many people who die by suicide are not known to have a diagnosed mental health condition at the time of death. Other problems often contribute to suicide, such as those related to relationships, substance use, physical health, and job, money, legal, or housing stress.
Suicide warning signs
The CDC lists 12 warning signs of suicide as:
- Feeling like a burden
- Being isolated
- Increased anxiety
- Feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
- Increased substance use
- Looking for ways to access lethal means
- Increased anger or rage
- Extreme mood swings
- Expressing hopelessness
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Talking or posting about wanting to die
- Making plans for suicide
If you have a loved one exhibiting such behaviors or thoughts, you should ask them what you can do to help. You can point out your observation that they seem sad and can encourage them to get help initially through their primary care doctor, who can assess the situation and prescribe medications or make a referral to a mental health professional.
“People who attempt to take their own lives often are profoundly hopeless and need people around them to notice their suffering and to help them to seek treatment. It’s really important for people to learn about the signs of depression, substance use disorders, and other common behavioral health conditions. It’s time for us to let go of the stigma that has made it so difficult for people to talk about these things,” said Dr. Sarvet.
The recent CDC survey also noted that one in four young adults in the U.S. said they considered suicide over the last month.
“In teenagers, depression is often complicated by disciplinary problems, school underachievement, interpersonal conflict, and drug and alcohol problems. It takes a great deal of understanding and compassion to notice the depressed person in the middle of all of this, who may be at serious risk for suicide,” said Dr. Sarvet.
Dr. Sarvet noted that it is important for parents and caring adults to learn how to recognize depression in teenagers, including:
Changes in school performance
- Excessive worry or anxiety, for instance, fighting to avoid bed or school
- Hyperactive behavior
- Frequent and disturbing nightmares
- Increased aggression or disobedience
- Frequent temper tantrums.
Dr. Sarvet suggested working with your doctor or therapist to create a written “suicide safety plan” should you begin to experience thoughts of harming yourself.
Suicide Safety Plan
When creating your plan, consider listing answers to the following:
Warning signs or triggers of a developing crisis such as thoughts, images, mood, situation, behavior
- Internal coping strategies, such as relaxation techniques or physical activity, including engaging in your favorite hobbies
- People and social settings that can offer distraction
- People you can ask for help
- Professionals or agencies to contact in a crisis, including the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
- Steps for making the physical environment safer
- A safe place you can go to
- Things worth living for
Dr. Sarvet noted suicide touches everyone.
The suicide death of a loved one or close friend can have a profound impact on survivors who often feel partly responsible for the tragedy. Those looking for support in coping with a suicide loss can visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention website for a list of nearby support groups.
If you, or someone you know, is in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or the Psychiatric Crisis Team at 413-733-6661 for Springfield residents or to learn where to call outside the Springfield area.
You can also talk with your primary care provider for a referral to a mental health professional or visit your local emergency room.