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Taking care of mental health, preventing suicides critical during pandemic

Handmade signs posted to a tennis court fence are set to greet future patients at a temporary field hospital for coronavirus patients on an adjacent soccer field in Shoreline, Wash. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Historically, during times of economic downturn and recession there has been an increase in suicides.

Feelings of hopelessness and periods of disconnection, increases in substance abuse, mental health disorders, and easy access to firearms and medications can also all lead to an increased risk for suicides.

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“There is the possibility here for a perfect storm in terms of an increase in suicides,” said Jennifer Stuber, the director of Forefront Suicide Prevention at the University of Washington. “That said, I don’t want to paint a bleak picture because suicide rates do historically also go down during times of national emergencies.”

Forefront is working to prevent an increase in suicides during this pandemic.

“At a population level, everyone’s anxiety is up,” Stuber said. “And for people who already are living with anxiety or other mental health challenges, you can expect an increase in mental health, the need for mental health support.”

Stuber said she’s glad to see more options for tele-mental health, allowing people to receive care and talk to therapists from home. She also expects to see an increase in substance misuse, one of the leading risk factors for suicide.

On the other hand, connections are very helpful in preventing suicides. Neighbors checking in with each other, scheduling calls and video chats with family and friends, and sending letters can all be protective against an increase in suicides.

“So that is one of the most hopeful and helpful things I see happening is the more activity that we can generate that brings us to this notion, this feeling that we are really all tacking this national emergency together,” Stuber said.

“I think we should really be thinking about using the terminology ‘physical distancing’ because social distancing implies that we’re cutting off our social relations,” she added. “And in fact, that’s exact opposite of what we should be doing right now.”

Forefront Suicide Prevention has moved online, providing valuable programming to the community that can help reach students, parents, teachers, school counselors, and share the signs of suicide and what they can do to help.

Forefront has a live webinar scheduled Thursday night to help parents understand how to support youth who may be struggling. Stuber said had 500 people registered for the webinar within two hours.

“If you can’t join us live, I actually think the event might even be full at this point, we’re going to have it up on the website and recorded for people to listen to after the fact,” Stuber said.

She also warned that many people have easier access to medications and, in some cases, firearms during the pandemic.

“Our young people, [and] frankly ourselves, we’re probably doing things that are out of character and unpredictable,” she said. “We’re [not at] our best selves right now, and people are much more erratic and impulsive perhaps than they would otherwise be.”

She said that when people have suicidal thoughts, they can go into action quickly.

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“If you can limit their access to means that are readily accessible, you can prevent suicide and help someone get the support they need as opposed to not being able to get that support.”

To find more online resources or watch the webinar, visit intheforefront.org.

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