- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 26, 2020

Mental health professionals are concerned that economic instability, physical isolation and stress over the coronavirus could contribute to increased suicide risk.

“There’s no question this is extremely concerning right now,” said Nadine Kaslow, professor and vice chair at Emory University Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. “I’m extremely concerned about the mental health of Americans The realities of this epidemic are scary. I think people are under enormous stress. I think there’s going to be a lot of loss of loved ones.”

She said financial instability, interpersonal conflicts, existing health problems, fears of death, loss of sense of purpose and feelings of alienation and isolation are all factors that could lead to a potentially higher risk of suicide for the general population.

While there aren’t hard statistics on the coronavirus and suicide incidents, Ms. Kaslow pointed to anecdotal evidence and reports.

President Trump has expressed concern about a potential increase in suicides during his updates on how his administration is dealing with the coronavirus.

This week, Portland Police Chief Jami Resch said 911 calls for suicide attempts or threats were up 41% since this time last year and up 23% compared to the 10 days prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, according to KGW8 in Oregon.

Also, Valley News Live reported that calls about suicide have gone up 300% nationally, citing FirstLink, a company that answers 211 helplines and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.

“Stress is absolutely associated with increased risk of suicide and the additional financial and social stress not to mention the anxiety around the disease or about our futures could be linked to an increased risk,” said Mitch Prinstein, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “We have to recognize that what we’re experiencing is a global stressor that is uncertain with no finite endpoint. So, therefore, it is kind of one of the most difficult types of stressors to deal with.”

Yet there may be some protective factors against suicide, such as the close monitoring of adolescents by their parents since schools are closed, leading to decreased risk among teens, Mr. Prinstein said.

In 2018, more than 48,000 Americans died by suicide, making it the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. There were an estimated 1,400,000 suicide attempts that year.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say risk factors of suicide could include a family history of suicide or child abuse, previous suicide attempts, existing mental disorders such as clinical depression, alcohol and substance abuse, feelings of hopelessness, impulsive or aggressive tendencies, isolation, physical illness, some type of loss whether work-related or financial, barriers to accessing mental health treatment and unwillingness to seek help due to stigma.

Psychologists stressed there are a number of steps both concerned loved ones and those experiencing suicidal thoughts can take.

To combat suicidal thoughts, Ms. Kaslow said people can partake in numerous self-care activities such as exercising, enjoying nature, meditating, using mindfulness apps, socially connecting, noticing negative self thoughts and allowing them to come and go, seeking virtual mental health services and having compassion for selves and others.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline also recommends people set a limit on media consumption including social media and news, get enough sleep and rest, eat healthy foods when possible, avoid excessive amounts of caffeine and alcohol and get accurate health information from reputable sources.

Those worried about a loved one attempting suicide can talk openly and matter-of-factly about suicide, listen nonjudgmentally, remove means of harm such as weapons or pills and seek help from people or agencies specializing in crisis intervention and suicide prevention.

If concerned about someone on social media, platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and YouTube have safety teams users can contact.

For those in a crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

• Shen Wu Tan can be reached at stan@washingtontimes.com.

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