Mental health specialists are working now to bolster the resilience of Americans who are suffering from feelings of despair — in hopes of preventing increases in suicides among people who are under increased pressure during the coronavirus pandemic.
Time is of the essence, public health researchers say. Experience with past natural disasters, such as earthquakes and hurricanes, shows that a rise in suicide often happens in the months after the immediate physical dangers of the disaster have passed.
A report jointly published last week by two foundations that support mental health issues estimates that, unless steps are taken now, the increase in “deaths of despair” from alcohol, drugs and suicide could increase by 75,000 as a result of COVID-19.
“Undeniably, policymakers must place a large focus on mitigating the effects of COVID,” says Benjamin F. Miller, chief strategy officer of the Well Being Trust, which published the report in conjunction with the Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies in Family Medicine and Primary Care. “However, if the country continues to ignore the collateral damage — specifically our nation’s mental health — we will not come out of this stronger.”
Fortunately, there are ways to mitigate those risks now, say psychologists and suicide survivors. For example, they urge elected leaders to make it easier for people who are suffering to get access to mental health care — whether or not they are employed.
The National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, for example, is now coordinating with other groups in a “National Response to COVID-19.” The campaign, co-led by the head of the National Institute of Mental Health and former Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, aims to better coordinate and publicize mental health resources for those who are particularly vulnerable right now.
J, for example, is a 33-year-old wife, mother and social worker for whom mysterious illness is a trigger for suicidal thinking. A decade ago, a rare hormonal disease ravaged her body, and she spent years misdiagnosed. That experience nearly broke her emotionally, and she attempted suicide twice.