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Supporting Mental Health: A Priority During Suicide Prevention Month and Beyond

Health experts have been raising red flags about the high levels of mental illness and increased suicide rates in the United States for quite some time now. Not surprisingly, the pandemic has amplified these concerns. In observance of Suicide Prevention Month, we’re sharing some key statistics to raise awareness of this important issue. We also offer suggestions for how we can care for our own mental wellness and that of our friends, relatives, and coworkers in the days and weeks ahead.

Even before the pandemic, mental health conditions were on the rise.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that:

  • The overall suicide rate has increased by 31% since 2001.
  • 90% of people who die by suicide had shown symptoms of a mental health condition.
  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 34.
  • 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental illness each year.
  • The cost of depression and anxiety in terms of lost productivity each year is estimated at one trillion dollars.

The pandemic has caused even more mental health concerns.

According to a study conducted in late June by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

  • U.S. adults reported considerably elevated adverse mental health conditions associated with COVID-19.
  • Younger adults, racial/ethnic minorities, essential workers, and unpaid adult caregivers reported disproportionately worse mental health outcomes.
  • Suicidal thoughts are rising. Compared to data from 2018, approximately twice as many respondents reported serious consideration of suicide in the previous 30 days.

According to The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), the steps taken to reduce the rate of new COVID-19 infections—such as social distancing—have the potential for adverse outcomes on suicide risk. Overall, it’s the significant changes to everyday life that have increased mental health conditions for many people, such as:

Economic stress.

This includes canceled events, closed businesses and schools, and mass layoffs. Since March, millions of Americans have lost their jobs. With some supplemental benefits already used up or about to expire—such as stimulus checks, 600 extra dollars in weekly unemployment benefits, and moratoriums on evictions—we expect to see even more stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health effects appear.

Social isolation.

People are sheltering in place for long periods of time, which can cause them to feel disconnected and lonely. Others are unable to visit loved ones, such as those in senior housing or in the hospital, even if they’re experiencing their final moments. This separation can lead to feelings of guilt, depression and other mental health effects.

Anita Ridolfo, our very own Stress Specialist Supervisor, also explains that many times, a person’s living situation is less than ideal. There may be family conflict, parenting issues, and even domestic violence, which could be exacerbated due to the pandemic and increased stress levels. Sadly, those that need support outside of the home environment may not be able to get help during this time.

Barriers to mental health treatment.

This includes people who may be delaying care due to the pandemic, as well as those who lost insurance during layoffs, can no longer afford care, or other barriers to seeking treatment.

Furthermore, pandemics are stressful. Many are experiencing fear and anxiety, and aren’t sure how to cope or manage these feelings in healthy ways. Unfortunately, the inability to receive care as soon as someone needs it can lead to more serious outcomes, so we encourage those who need help to contact their doctors right away.

A slowly turning tide.

Given the statistics above, most of us probably know someone personally who has struggled or is currently grappling with a mental health concern. And yet, the stigma of mental health persists. Sadly, cultural norms encourage us to keep a stiff upper lip for fear of being seen as weak, or not at the top of our game. But might that be changing?

COVID-19 has stripped away our ability to gloss over mental health concerns. Parents are struggling to care for children and be a productive employee; millions are unemployed and facing financial uncertainty; relatives and friends of the over 180,000—and counting—Americans who have died of COVID-19 are grieving.

Employers and health plans are responding. According to a study by the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions, over 50% of surveyed employers are providing special emotional and mental health programs for their workforce because of the pandemic. Plus, many major health plans have waived copayments for mental health concerns during the coronavirus outbreak.

Caring for our mental wellness in the months ahead.

Most of us hoped the pandemic would be over quickly. But now another season is upon us—with altered school routines, shorter days, cold weather for some, and the holidays looming. It’s a good time for some mental health reminders:

  • Check in with yourself. If you notice any of the common warning signs of mental illness—such as feeling sad or withdrawn for more than two weeks, or experiencing drastic changes in mood, behavior, personality, or sleeping habits—talk to someone.
  • Socialize with others safely, where you can. Experts say social interaction is key to our mental health.
  • Continue to get outside for fresh air and sunlight, even as the weather cools.
  • Options are limited, but plan something to look forward to—a nice meal, a fun activity with a partner or kids, or even a socially-distanced adventure outdoors.
  • Limit consumption of news. Consider deleting certain apps from your phone that you gravitate toward, but cause anxiety.
  • Check in on friends and loved ones and ask how they’re doing. As we enter the flu season, people may be feeling down and need a listening ear.
  • Continue to enforce boundaries between work and home life, ending workdays on time and observing real weekends.
  • Make a list of the things that are within your control and the things that you have no control over. It is important to make that distinction and use your time and energy to focus on the things in your life you can control.
  • Take at least 15 minutes out of the day for a “brain break.” This can be in the form of meditation, deep breathing or mindfulness. It can be as simple as breathing in to the count of four, holding that breath to the count of seven and breathing out to the count of eight. For more ideas, WebMD has some great examples of different relaxation exercises.

Above all, if thoughts and feelings become overwhelming, seek help. Telehealth visits with counselors and Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are becoming incredibly accessible now. Also, several national hotlines can be reached instantly via phone or text, including:

The pandemic is testing our resolve, our resilience, and our mental wellness. Greater awareness of mental health concerns and an acknowledgment by employers that mental health is a workplace issue will help us all now and after the pandemic has passed.

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