Loss of life, health, loved ones, jobs, homes, and even hope . . . COVID-19 has inflicted incalculable damage to people’s lives. Many of us struggle from day to day, hour to hour, to maintain our emotional and mental balance in stressful conditions that are continuously changing.
The unprecedented – don’t we hear that word again and again? – nature of the crisis has left mental health professionals unsure of exactly what to expect in terms of the pandemic’s short and long term effects on the public’s mental health, including the related tragedy of deaths from suicide.
The world of 2020 is very different from the Europe that pioneering sociologist Emile Durkheim analyzed in the 19th century. However, present day professionals offer explanations that align with what Durkheim determined — when people are over-regulated by social norms or feel adrift and disconnected from society, suicide rates are likely to increase.
The Alcohol, Drug Addition, Mental Health Board of Cuyahoga County (ADAMHS) labels the pandemic a “community crisis” and makes a distinction between internal and external stress in terms of what people experience. Citing 9/11 as an earlier community crisis, they explain that then as now, “we see an initial drop off in calls for service to our 24-hour hotline. The thought is that the focus becomes more outward, on the community as a whole, and less on an individual’s internal stress.”
But this addresses only the initial effect of the crisis. We can all relate to a common sense of fatigue, perhaps an increasing anger, as the social and financial consequences of the pandemic keep mounting week after week. The ADAMHS Board links COVID-19 to other community crises like 9/11 with the observation that “as these types of crises or natural disasters persist, there becomes a chronic community stress” that leads to an increase in mental health crises and suicidal emergencies.
Rick Oliver, Director of Crisis and Trauma Services at Frontline Services, notes that the mental health effects of the crisis may differ depending on an individual’s age, explaining that calls to his hotline from adults increased while calls from children and adolescents decreased during April and May of this year. “The decrease in calls from or about children and adolescents makes sense,” he says, “as we typically see this type of a decrease when schools are not in session.”
Oliver adds that Frontline’s hotline has seen an increase in calls about mental health concerns like anxiety and depression since the onset of the COVID-10 crisis, but a decrease in calls specifically indicating a suicidal crisis. In fact, the number of total deaths by suicide in Cuyahoga County is lower than in 2019 at the same point. Oliver stresses, however, that “it’s unclear whether this trend will continue or for how long since we really haven’t experienced anything like this before “
Oliver is exactly right — no one alive today has experienced anything like this in our lives. Maintaining our mental health is vital, though, if we are to thrive beyond this crisis. You can make a start at protecting mental health by reviewing The American Psychological Association’s list of warning signs. If we know what to look for, we may be able to identify someone, perhaps even ourselves, who can be guided to a mental health professional in time:
- Talking about committing suicide;
- Focusing on death and dying;
- Difficulty eating or sleeping;
- Drastic changes in behavior;
- Withdrawal from friends and social activities;
- Loss of interest in school, work, or hobbies;
- Loss of interest in personal appearance;
- Writing a will and/or making final arrangements;
- Giving away valued possessions;
- Taking unnecessary risks;
- Serious recent losses;
- Escalation Of alcohol and/or drug use;
- Previous attempts at suicide.
Please seek help if you or someone you know is at risk:
- The Cuyahoga County Crisis Hotline, operated by FrontLine Service (24-hours/day), 216-623-6888;
- Crisis Chat, also available through FrontLine Service;
- Warmline a 24-hour service run by peers and operated by Thrive, 440-886-5950;
- Crisis Text – text “4hope” to 741741;
- The ADAMHS Board free mental health screenings.