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COVID-19's silent threat: Suicide

It is hard not to get depressed reading the media reports and watching the pandemic play out in newscasts showing the many victims of COVID-19. As the numbers of deaths and positive cases have risen in our communities, our spirits have fallen, pushed down even further by the necessary distancing from loved ones.

For those who are already experiencing mental illness, the pandemic, with its forced isolation, is an accelerant for self-harm and suicide. These are the less reported, silent causalities of the virus.

In the U.S., some states are reporting dramatic increases in suicides over the past three months. This is similar to the suicide trends seen in past periods of economic depression. A study done after the 2007 Great Recession showed a 1.6 percent increase in the suicide rate with each percentage point increase in the unemployment rate. Other studies on the impact of recessions on suicide rates show similar trends worldwide. With unemployment rates already exceeding the Great Recession, increased suicide rates threaten a pandemic of another sort.

Oregon is ranked 19th in the nation by the CDC for those who commit suicide, with a total of 844 Oregonians taking their own lives in 2018. In 2019, more than 9 women and 30 men per 100,000 population in Oregon completed suicide. These concerning statistics from Oregon well exceed the national averages (6 women and 23 men per 100,000), and are the most pronounced in rural areas, as well as with the very elderly, the middle-aged and teenagers. Nationally, white and Native American males have the highest rates of suicide, at least two times greater than Asian, Hispanic and Black Americans. Given the state’s population, Oregon has a fairly high-risk profile.

We all recognize that this pandemic is traumatic. The best friend to anxiety is uncertainty, and the best friend to depression is isolation. Conditions being created by the pandemic are a breeding ground for increased mental instability. The constant threat of exposure to actual or threatened serious illness from Coronavirus is triggering a sense of hyper-vigilance in individuals, including some health care workers who are experiencing symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

A role that each of us can play right now with our family and friends is to be an active participant in suicide prevention for those you feel might be at risk. Follow this easy-to-remember approach and just ASK: Assess, See, Know.

ASSESS the situation. Is the individual negative, filled with worry and hopelessness? Do they seem depressed and anxious, finding it hard to complete simple daily tasks, such as bathing, getting out of bed, or eating? These are indicators that their mental and emotional health may be adversely affected.

Next, SEE if you can help. Those experiencing trauma, depression and anxiety may not see how adversely these symptoms are impacting their lives. It is often those closest to them who notice and express concern. If someone you know is experiencing depression or heightened anxiety, talk to them calmly about reaching out for professional help.

Then, KNOW what resources are available. Help them seek help. This includes contacting a primary care or other doctor, a mental health agency, or professional therapist. During this pandemic, most mental health specialists are offering virtual treatment such as telehealth. More urgently, if someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Helpline at 800-273-TALK (8255), or call 911.

The isolation we all feel is very real, but even more acute for those at high risk of taking their own lives. Each of us can be a vigilant observer and early warning system for these silent victims of COVID-19. Just remember to ASK. It may save a life.

Kevin Garrett, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at Oregon Institute of Technology (Oregon Tech) in Klamath Falls in the marriage and family therapy master’s degree program.