Experts warn suicide rates could increase as Americans continue to deal with the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A Swedish behavioral health specialist shares insights and strategies for recognizing suicide’s warning signs and preventing it from happening.
There are resources available to help if you or someone you love is struggling with suicidal thoughts.
[5 MIN READ]
Anxiety, depression and stress are just some of the byproducts of life for millions of people during the COVID-19 pandemic. The past year and a half has been such a difficult time that experts are now warning suicide rates could surge as a result.
We talked to Brittney Neidhardt-Gruhl, LICSW, a behavioral health specialist at Swedish, about suicide — its warning signs, risk factors and prevention tips. She answers our questions and shares her insights below.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected mental health?
Neidhardt-Gruhl: I’ve seen people who have never had anxiety or depression come to me for severe symptoms because of the stress-load created by the pandemic. People have lost their jobs and are close to losing their homes. Their relationships are strained. The uncertainty of it all — understandably — creates enormous pressure. I’ve seen a lot of people who have reached their limit and are seeking help.
Families have been hit particularly hard due to the challenges of trying to work from home while navigating online learning for their children. I’m seeing different kinds of anxiety like loneliness and fatigue come up for children as well.
One of the hardest things for mental health professionals is that there is no precedent. The coping skills I would usually suggest — like coffee with a friend, hugs from loved ones or visiting family — don't apply because we haven't been able to do them safely. To make things worse, this summer’s heat dome pushed temperatures into triple digits and wildfires lowered and forced many people indoors. I’ve had people who were saying, "now we can't even open our windows or go outside." This contributed to a feeling of hopelessness.
Nationally we are seeing an increase in suicide, substance abuse and death from drug overdoses. Unfortunately, these increases have been trending for many years. They are not primarily caused by the pandemic, although it has very likely contributed this past year.
What are the warning signs and risk factors of someone having suicidal thoughts?
Neidhardt-Gruhl: When talking about thoughts of suicide, we usually look at risk factors and warning signs. When someone has several risk factors, and we notice one or more warning signs, we are more likely to start a conversation around safety. That’s when we will ask if they're having any thoughts about harming themselves or if they have a plan to die by suicide.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Preventions, factors that increase the risk of suicide include:
- Access to lethal means like firearms
- Chronic substance abuse
- Family members who have died by suicide
- Mental health diagnoses such as depression
- Previous attempts to die by suicide
- Serious health conditions like chronic pain, severe prolonged illness, insomnia or traumatic brain injury
Some warning signs that a person may be planning to die by suicide often include talk and behavior that is not normal for that person. For example, a person might research ways to end their life, give away their possessions or isolate themselves from others.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention lists several warning signs of suicide, including:
- Discussions around unbearable pain
- Feeling they're a burden on others
- Not seeing a future for themselves
- Talking about suicide, death and dying
- Use of phrases such as, "It would be easier for everyone if I weren't here."
What is the best way to help someone or yourself if you’re having suicidal thoughts?
Neidhardt-Gruhl: Connections are lifesaving. The best way to help someone else is to talk with them about how they are feeling. Ask them if you can connect them with local and national resources. Ask them how you can help if you’re not sure. It’s ok if you don’t know the “right thing” to say. But the fact that you are there with them is helpful.
If you are the one having suicidal thoughts, I encourage you to reach out to someone. Anyone. It can be one of the hardest things to do when you feel this way, but it can save your life.
Creating a crisis plan when you are feeling well can also be a useful tool.
A helpful plan includes a list of:
- Coping skills like meditation, exercise or therapy that have helped you feel better in the past
- People such as close friends, trusted family members or mental health professionals you can call for help
- Personal warning signs that indicate you are not feeling your best
- Phone numbers of local and national crisis resources
Can you prevent anxiety and depression from progressing into suicidal thoughts?
Neidhardt-Gruhl: Absolutely! Suicide is preventable.
A combination of things can contribute to a person attempting to end their own life. And frequently, the attempt itself is an impulsive act. When assessing someone for risk, we consider factors that can protect them from self-harm.
Protective factors include:
- Access to mental health care
- Being proactive about caring for their mental health
- Cultural and religious beliefs that encourage help-seeking, discourage suicidal behavior or create a strong sense of purpose or self-esteem
- Feeling connected to family and community support
- Limited access to lethal means
- Problem-solving and coping skills
Our connections to others are a powerful tool
Neidhardt-Gruhl: Out of all of these protective factors, I would say that our connections to others is the most powerful prevention tool we have. Of course, talking to mental health providers also falls into that category.
We need to normalize talking about mental health and suicide, so people with depression or anxiety feel comfortable opening up and connecting without fear of being stigmatized. The best way to beat that stigma is to talk about mental health the same way we talk about physical health. There is no difference when we are talking about the health and wellness of the whole person.
Out of the Darkness community walks
The Out of the Darkness Walk to support the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is scheduled for 9 - 11 a.m., Oct., 17, 2021. Learn more and join or support our team.
Help is available
There are several resources available to people in crisis, depending on where they live.
National suicide prevention resources are available 24/7, including:
o By phone: 800-273-8255
o By online chat
- Crisis Text Line: text “HOME” to 741-741 to reach a crisis counselor
- The Trevor Project for LGBTQIA+ youth
o By phone: 866-488-7386
o By online chat
o By text
Local resources in Washington state include:
- Crisis Connections: 24-hour crisis line at 866-427-4747. The primary source for connecting residents to emergency mental health services in King, Pierce, Clark, Skamania, Klickitat, Grant, Okanogan, Chelan and Douglas counties.
- Crisis helplines by county
- Teen Link: Text, chat or call 866-833-6546
If you know someone in crisis, or you are having suicidal thoughts yourself, call one of the resources above or 9-1-1. Do not hesitate to get help and reach out for support. You are not alone.
Find a doctor
Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult with a doctor or mental health professional virtually, you have options. Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow-up as needed. If you need to find a physician, caregiver or advanced care practitioner, you can use our provider directory.
Find out the latest updates on how we’re handling COVID-19.
Caring for BIPOC and minority mental health
How to help someone in the midst of a mental health crisis
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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