We Can All Help Prevent Suicide. A Clinical Psychologist Explains How.

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Provided by Novant Health UVA Health System

While the coronavirus has taken a physical toll on many, the pandemic has taken an emotional toll and has significantly affected the nation’s already struggling mental health. Whether it’s the loss of a job, adjusting to social distancing and feelings of isolation, or fear of getting sick, many people are feeling the adverse effects of COVID-19.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) determined that suicide continues to be one of the top 10 leading causes of death in the U.S. year after year. Mix in the emotional exhaustion and unfamiliar territory of the pandemic, and mental health conditions among the U.S. population are elevating significantly. These concerns are seen especially among young adults, racial/ethnic communities, essential workers and adult caregivers.

So, how can people cope with upheaval and uncertainty in a healthy way? And when is it time to seek help? Karyn O’Brien-Flannagan, Psy.D., clinical psychologist and senior director, Novant Health UVA Health System behavioral health and diversity and inclusion, offers guidance on how to support loved ones who are struggling and when to seek help.

What are you seeing as you talk to patients?

We are noticing a lot more anxiety, depression and unhealthy amounts of substance use. I think it has a lot to do with the added stressors that people are experiencing. Also, just the overall stress of the pandemic itself. Some people are afraid to leave their house and with the new way of living – masking and social distancing – that can be a huge stressor for people who are extroverts. They like to be around a lot of people and stay busy, and now they’re confined. Also, acute stress can be a trigger for a lot of folks who have mental illness.

What are healthy ways to cope when we’re overwhelmed?

When we feel overwhelmed, it’s important to understand that taking time for yourself and checking in with your emotions is not self-indulgent – it’s self-compassion. Part of self-preservation is remembering that we shouldn’t feel guilty about intentionally pausing and using healthy coping skills to ensure we don’t stretch ourselves too thin. Healthy coping skills mean implementing healthy habits into your everyday life – exercise, meditation, eating healthy and getting enough sleep. If you’re not able to sleep because of anxiety, try some simple breathing techniques or using imagery to help you wind down and rest.

Remember to be intentional when taking time to do the things you enjoy most, such as listening to music, sitting down with a good book or trying new activities. Check in with a family member or close friend or suggest a virtual meet-up to connect with those closest to you. It’s essential to check in with yourself and revaluate to live the best version of you at the present time.

What should you watch out for in a friend or loved one’s behaviors?

I think what to watch for is changes in behavior or personality, the pattern of how a person typically acts throughout the day. If it’s your child, for instance, you might notice a decline in their school grades, poor sleep habits, spending more time in their rooms or withdrawing from friends and family. With adults, you might notice increased drinking or drug use, change in mood where they’re angry more often or acting withdrawn.

Looking out for symptoms of depression, including feelings of sadness, emptiness or hopelessness, as well as loss of interest in most or all normal activities, is also critical when it comes to supporting the people around you. Close to 800,000 people die by suicide annually, according to the World Health Organization. While depression may require long-term treatment, suicides are preventable and showing your support for someone who is going through a tough time can save lives.

What’s the best way to support someone?

You don’t want to minimize people’s feelings. Don’t be dismissive. You want to acknowledge what they’re feeling and empathize with them. Say, ‘I am sorry that you are feeling this way right now or having this experience at the moment.” But also acknowledge any aspect of the current situation that they might be able to control, which will decrease a sense of hopelessness and adjust their focus. Creating an action plan together with simple daily or weekly goals can help significantly.

It’s important to keep in mind that everyone is different. Approaching family members or loved ones can be a challenge, especially when folks aren’t receptive to a suggestion to get help. I suggest having a calm conversation that begins with, “I care about you and here’s what I’m seeing.” Do not bring it up in a time that’s heated, or a moment of passion where people may get angry. Wait until they calm down and say, “Hey, can we talk about this?” And suggest they call a help line or schedule an appointment to speak with someone. Let them know there are resources to help. Try to be there for them and show support in a way that they can receive it.

With children, it’s important to speak to the adults around them, so ask their teachers or coaches questions about their behavior and overall demeanor and if they’ve noticed any behavior or personality changes. Consult your pediatrician or primary health care provider with your concerns. I would recommend an evaluation that will identify the most appropriate treatment for your child.

If you think you might be struggling with your mental health, seek support early. Don’t wait until your distress is unbearable, as there is no reason to suffer. Early support can promote healthier outcomes.

For more information on Novant Health UVA Health System’s behavioral health services, visit NovantHealthUVA.org/services/behavioral-health.

Talking things out

  • Remember, social distancing doesn’t mean self-isolation
  • Share your thoughts over a phone call or video chat with friends or family
  • Reach out to someone else who may be struggling
  • Get help online, by phone or text: SAMHSA.gov/disaster-preparedness   · 1-800-985-5990; · Text “TalkWithUs” to 66746
  • If you’re worried about harming yourself or others, or know someone else who might be, call 911.

Making time for yourself

  • Take a break from the news and your phone
  • Get some fresh air, exercise or rest
  • Do something fun

Caring for mind and body

  • Maintain a healthy diet
  • Stay physically active
  • Get a good night’s sleep
  • Try stretching, deep breathing or meditation

Managing your emotions

  • Remember that negative emotions are normal
  • Don’t focus on what you can’t control
  • Find joy in the little things
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