Unemployment, isolation, health fears, losing loved ones. COVID-19 has triggered more than a medical outbreak; it has awakened Americans to a mental health crisis.

“This year, the pandemic has shown us that no one is immune to mental health struggles,” says Tina Lechnir, LCSW, regional director of Ascension NE Wisconsin Behavioral Mental Health, a Be Safe Wisconsin partner, recognizing Mental Illness Awareness Week (October 4-10).

October 8 is National Depression Screening Day and Be Safe Wisconsin partners hope more people seek screening to detect and treat mental health conditions to prevent a possible tragedy, a particular concern during the COVID-19 crisis.

Startling Statistics

N.E.W. Mental Health Connection, a collaboration of community stakeholders in northeast Wisconsin committed to continuously improving the mental health system, says it is important to first get perspective on the prevalence of suicide prior to COVID-19. “Over the past 10 years, the Fox Valley has seen a 66% increase in suicide deaths, whereas Wisconsin saw a 40% increase,” notes Beth Clay, Executive Director, N.E.W. Mental Health Connection, “so we already had a public health crisis on our hands, that included suicide deaths, mental health concerns and overdose deaths.”

Clay adds that it is important to look not only at suicide deaths but also those considering, planning and attempting suicide to get a full picture of how people are faring in the pandemic. “COVID and the circumstances of the pandemic have created a frightening increase in suicide risk factors, such as social isolation, uncertainty about the future and economic hardship, while at the same time, decreasing some of our most important protective factors, including close relationships, routine, and financial stability.”

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey during America’s shutdown – from April to June 2020 – revealed some startling statistics.

  • 40% reported feeling symptoms of anxiety or depression.
  • 10% had considered suicide.

Nationally, younger adults, women and people struggling with poverty have been impacted the most. In the Fox Valley, suicide is a growing concern. “Since March, there’s been an increase in police contacts for mental health crisis and suicide-related behaviors, especially suicide thinking,” Clay says. “The Fox Valley is on track to have more overdose deaths in 2020 than in 2018 or 2019.”

Suicide prevention experts say white men ages 45 to 54 are at the highest risk in Wisconsin. Prior to the pandemic, between 2010 and 2017, the rate of suicide among this group more than doubled. “And when you add in the possibility of increases in broken relationships, job loss or financial hardship due to COVID-19, the risk is amplified,” says Sarah Bassing-Sutton, Community Suicide Prevention Coordinator, N.E.W. Mental Health Connection.

Risk Factors & Warning Signs of Suicide

Bassing-Sutton adds, “Paying attention to the convergence of stressors and health issues, which can create hopelessness and despair, are red flags for concern. Unaddressed and undiagnosed mental health and substance abuse issues also increase suicide risk.”

Suicide risk factors include:

  • Mental and/or physical health issues including chronic pain
  • Relationship stress
  • Access to lethal means (guns/medications)
  • Financial issues/job loss
  • Family history and prior attempts of suicide
  • Childhood abuse or neglect
  • Isolation & disconnection
  • Limited access to healthcare

Signs suicide might be a consideration include:

  • Someone talking about taking their own life
  • Feeling like a burden
  • Withdrawing from activities
  • Giving away belongings
  • Loss of interest
  • Acting recklessly or engaging in risky behavior
  • Increase use of drugs or alcohol

Communities to the Rescue

If you suspect someone is suffering with depression, anxiety or suicidal thoughts, Clays suggests, “Focus on social connectedness, even as we continue to engage in physical distancing. Use FaceTime, Messenger, Google Hangouts and texting. These are great ways for community members to prevent a person in need from isolating in risky ways.”

Lechnir adds, “Encourage them to seek help and remind them that they are not alone. Also, be a good listener. One of the greatest gifts you can give someone in crisis is time and an ear to listen. You don’t need to have all the answers, but being there for someone makes a big difference.”

People in crisis should find comfort in knowing there is a willingness across the country to talk about mental health. A new national survey shows as a result of the pandemic –

  • 81% believe it is more important than ever to make suicide prevention a national priority.
  • 52% are more open to talking about mental health.

Bassing-Sutton suggests normalizing the difficulty of living through a pandemic for everyone. “And emphasize hope: Treatments and vaccines will be available, and this pandemic will come to an end.”

“Suicide prevention is everyone’s business!” Clay says. Mental health experts suggest people aid a person in need by –

  • Learning the warning signs, what to say and how to help.
  • Promoting healthy coping strategies such as exercise, meditation, eating a balanced diet and good sleep habits.

Ways to Get Help

For people in need of help, mental health experts suggest practicing self-care and reaching out to professionals. “COVID has not impacted the availability of mental health services, though some have moved to a virtual platform. There are services, and lifelines to hope!” Clay emphasizes.

Mental health experts say dialing 911 or going directly to an emergency room when you’re in crisis is the safest thing to do. If you or anyone you know needs help immediately, there are a couple of other places to connect with professionals.

  • Call the National Suicide Lifeline: (800) 273-TALK
  • Text “HOPELINE” to 741741

“We encourage anyone struggling during this especially difficult time to reach out to take advantage of assistance, whether it is to address overuse or abuse of alcohol or drugs or talk through coping mechanisms to stay healthy and well,” says Julie Meyer, MPS, director, Behavioral Health at ThedaCare, a Be Safe Wisconsin partner that has been dedicated to providing behavioral health treatment during the COVID-19 pandemic. “We are able to provide virtual and face-to-face care to meet individuals where and how they feel most comfortable.”