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Published: June, 2020; Vol 17, Num 1

 

The Potential Impact of COVID-19 on Suicide Rates

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), people are more likely to die by suicide if they are actively struggling with substance abuse, are intoxicated, have a medical illness, are experiencing prolonged stress, have access to firearms or have suffered a recent tragedy or loss. Illness and stress caused by the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the lengthy anticipated return to “normal,” can lead to these risk factors being more widespread and put people at an even greater risk for suicide.

Three of the greatest precipitating factors for suicide include serious financial problems, alcohol use and access to firearms – each of which has increased during the pandemic:

  • Unemployment rates are as high as 20 percent.
  • Alcoholic beverage sales rose 55 percent in late March.
  • The FBI reported a 73 percent increase in background check applications for gun purchases in March compared to the same month a year ago.

During these unprecedented times, even as stay-at-home measures are being lifted, it is important to check in with friends and loved ones. Here are multiple signs someone may be considering suicide:

  • Social withdrawal can indicate a person is at greater risk. Perhaps a friend or relative is increasingly difficult to contact via phone or text, disappears from social media or starts saying they just want to be alone.
  • A persistent drop in mood might be revealed on the phone by a flat tone of voice, talking less than usual or more slowly and by shorter text messages or none at all.
  • Some people might say things like “You’d be better off without me” or “There’s nothing to live for,” which suggests they can’t see a way out of their situation and may be thinking about suicide.
  • Unusual or unexpected visits or calls to family and friends, or saying goodbye to people as if they won’t be seen again.
  • Seeking out lethal means such as access to guns, pills, knives or other objects that could be used in a suicide attempt.
  • Unusual preoccupation or focus on death, dying or violence. Posting or writing poems or stories about death on social media.

So what steps should you take if you’re talking with someone you think may be contemplating suicide?

Do:

Be yourself. Let the person know you care and they are not alone. Finding the right words is not nearly as important as showing your concern.

Listen. Let your friend or loved one vent and unload their feelings. No matter how negative the conversation seems, the fact it’s taking place is a positive sign.

Be sympathetic and non-judgmental. The person is doing the right thing by talking about their feelings, no matter how difficult it may be to hear.

Offer hope. Reassure your loved one that help is available and that suicidal feelings are temporary. Let the person know their life is important to you.

Take the person seriously. If a person says things like, “I’m so depressed, I can’t go on,” ask if they’re having thoughts of suicide. You’re allowing them to share their pain, not putting ideas in their head.

Don’t:

Argue with the suicidal person. Avoid saying things like: “You have so much to live for,” “Your suicide will hurt your family,” or “Just snap out of it.”

Act shocked, lecture the person on the value of life or argue that suicide is wrong.

Promise confidentiality or be sworn to secrecy. A life is at stake and you may need to speak to a mental health professional to keep the person safe. If you promise to keep your discussions secret, you may have to break your word.

Offer ways to fix your loved one’s problems, give advice or make them feel like they have to justify their suicidal feelings. It’s not about how bad the problem is, but how badly it’s hurting your friend or loved one.

Blame yourself. You can’t “fix” someone else’s depression. Your friend or loved one’s happiness or lack thereof is not your responsibility.

Get Help Now

If you or a loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts, there are several free resources that provide confidential support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. If you are concerned that a friend, family member or co-worker is at risk for suicide, you can reach out to these resources for help.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. For immediate help in the U.S., call 1-800-273-TALK (8255). In Canada, call 1-833-456-4566 to contact Crisis Services Canada.

Text HELLO to 741741 (U.S.) or 686868 (Canada) to contact the Crisis Text Line and connect with a trained crisis counselor.

Throughout the difficult times of this pandemic, there have been plenty of heartwarming examples of communities and individuals supporting one another. Let’s continue to find this silver lining and take the time to strengthen our connections with the people we care about in our lives.

[Jamie Becker is the LHSFNA’s Director of Health Promotion.]