September is National Suicide Prevention Month, and now, more than ever, we need to be mindful of our own mental health and that of our loved ones. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has led to increases in anxiety, depression and suicides, but there are things we can do for ourselves and for those who are at risk.
According to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Americans reported symptoms of anxiety at rates three times higher than this same time last year. Symptoms of depression were four times higher than the same period in 2019.
"Overall, 40.9% of respondents reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition, including symptoms of anxiety disorder or depressive disorder (30.9%), symptoms of a trauma- and stressor-related disorder related to the pandemic (26.3%), and having started or increased substance use to cope with stress or emotions related to COVID-19 (13.3%)," the report said.
The most at-risk groups for suicide, according to the survey, were people between the ages of 18-24, Hispanics and Black individuals, unpaid caregivers for adults and essential workers.
Suicide rates in the United States have been on the rise for the past two decades, but the isolation many feel due to social distancing, economic losses, loss of loved ones to the disease and anxiety about the disease have the potential of creating a massive mental health crisis in the nation.
There are things we can do, however, to reduce the risk.
First, if you are in crisis, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is there for you. The number is 1-800-273-8255. Their website, suicidepreventionlifeline.org, also has resources to connect people with therapists, support groups and additional resources for specific groups or situations. You can also text the Crisis Text Hotline by texting "Hello" to 741741.
Research has shown the detrimental effect that isolation has on mental health. Social distancing can add to that feeling of being alone, so check in with your friends and family and stay connected to them. The elderly and people caring for an elderly relative may be extra cautious about being out and about because of the virus, so reach out to them more frequently to maintain that connection. Ask them how they are doing and listen to them. Learn the signs and symptoms of someone thinking about suicide. The National Institute of Mental Health, nimh.nih.gov, provides a list of things to listen and look for.
If you are concerned about someone, reduce their risk by asking them if they have a plan and remove any lethal objects that would help them carry out that plan. According to the CDC, the time between someone deciding to take their life and taking action can be as short as five to 10 minutes, and they tend to not substitute another means if the one they had planned is not available.
"Therefore, increasing the time interval between deciding to act and the suicide attempt, for example, by making it more difficult to access lethal means, can be lifesaving," said the CDC.
Help them connect to professionals who can assist them. This could be a trusted friend or family member, spiritual leader or mental health professional. With the advancement of telemedicine, people can speak with a mental health professional without having to leave home.
Nationally, we have come a long way towards removing the stigma surrounding mental health, but we still have a ways to go. We need to continue having conversations about mental health and treat it the same way we would heart disease, cancer or other illnesses. There is no shame in seeking help and treatment for a mental illness. Speaking out about experiences with mental illness could help others who are afraid to do so or feel isolated because they believe they're the only ones experiencing it.
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. By making mental health care more of a priority in our health care system, in our workplaces and our communities, we have the ability to save lives.