Ellen Stewart

Ellen Stewart

The COVID-19 pandemic is rife with possible triggers to cause suicidal thoughts, counselors say.

Stress can build as individuals try to process the uncertainty of the grim medical and economic news that comes in a relentless wave from television, newspapers, magazines, radio and the internet.

People have watched loved ones battle the disease that has claimed more than 87,000 lives in the United States. More than 36 million Americans have lost their jobs due to the shutdown. Businesses have closed. Retirement accounts have been decimated.

Ellen Stewart, a licensed professional counselor with Croyle-Nielsen Therapeutic Associates, said, as a result, she is seeing “a difference in terms of intensity, frequency and duration of symptoms” associated with suicidal ideation.

“Right now, those are all being heightened,” Stewart said. “The things I really look for are helplessness and hopelessness because those are the twin sisters of grief, and loss and suffering.”

Anxiety can become exacerbated due to people living under stay-at-home orders where human interaction is limited, making it difficult for people to talk with loved ones, get together in groups or congregate in houses of worship, said Byron Smith, co-chair of the Cambria County Suicide Prevention Task Force.

“With this social distancing that we do, unfortunately it’s caused social distancing, meaning not only physically, but mentally because we’re lacking that interface and that socializing that people do,” Smith said.

Tom Caulfield, director of Veteran Community Initiatives, an organization that helps former military personnel with a variety of issues, including mental health, referred to suicide as “a permanent nonsolution to a temporary problem.”

Stewart said she encourages individuals who are contemplating suicide to think about how their absence would affect people close to them.

“Imagine the pictures on the mantel five years from now,” Stewart said. “The pictures are going to change, but you’re not going to be in them.

“People are going to get married. People are going to graduate. But you’re not going to be in those pictures.

“Ten years from now, that baby’s going to be born and you’re not going to be holding it in the picture. Fifteen years from now, 20 years from now, life will go on. Those pictures are going to change. And people are going to hurt.” 

‘A Perfect Storm?’ 

With the country two months into the crisis, quantifying the number of resulting suicides is difficult.

Well Being Trust, a national public health group, warned that 75,000 Americans could suffer “deaths of despair” from suicide or substance misuse as a result of the pandemic.

An article in The Journal of the American Medical Association titled “Suicide Mortality and Coronavirus Disease 2019 – A Perfect Storm?” provided some context.

“Suicide rates have been rising in the U.S. over the last two decades,” according to the article.

“The latest data available (2018) show the highest age-adjusted suicide rate in the U.S. since 1941. It is within this context that coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) struck the U.S. Concerning disease models have led to historic and unprecedented public health actions to curb the spread of the virus. Remarkable social distancing interventions have been implemented to fundamentally reduce human contact. While these steps are expected to reduce the rate of new infections, the potential for adverse outcomes on suicide risk is high. Actions could be taken to mitigate potential unintended consequences on suicide prevention efforts, which also represent a national public health priority.”

The number of calls to the Cambria County Lifeline (1-877-268-9463) is about the same as usual, while outreach to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK {8255}) is up by about 30%, according to Smith.

“I think probably people are using the national line more than the local reach line,” Smith said. “It’s probably advertised more, I’d say.” 

‘Longer-term effect’ 

Messages sent to the Crisis Text Line (text HOME to 741741) have increased during the pandemic.

“We don’t have a lot of real-time data coming in fully from all over those centers yet,” said Dr. Perri Rosen, a consulting psychologist for the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services’ Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services’ Bureau of Children’s Behavioral Health Services.

“But we have heard from a lot of the call centers, the crisis centers, that they are seeing a definite increase in calls coming in since COVID hit during March and April.”

In early April, Pennsylvania established a 24/7 statewide Support & Referral Helpline (1-855-284-2494), staffed by professionals, to help individuals dealing with pandemic-related anxiety.

“Our office really recognized that the conditions that Pennsylvanians were now living with really created a situation where behavioral health needs were likely to be exacerbated – social distancing, loss of employment, economic insecurity, food insecurity, cut off from other kinds of support if you’re a person who’s already been involved in therapeutic services or peer support for mental health needs, or drug and alcohol recovery needs,” said Kristen Houser, OMHSAS’ deputy secretary.

“All of those things have been disrupted by the need to shelter at home.”

Concerns about suicide will likely still linger even when life returns to something approaching to normal.

“We don’t know the longer-term effect that this will have,” Rosen said. “We won’t know the impact on suicide deaths probably for a while to come. But there is a potential for that.”

Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5056. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Sutor.

Recommended for you