Suicide Prevention Efforts Changed by COVID

Nov 6, 2020

Credit National Suicide Prevention Lifeline logo / National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

As the COVID pandemic continues, it also continues to alter virtually every aspect of life and work in South Carolina as well as the nation.  For some, working at home or wearing a mask to the store is a minor inconvenience.  For others, however, the isolation of working from home, or sometimes the worry of unemployment or other stressors can be major traumas and have catastrophic results, including suicide.  

According to Chris Allen, board chairman of the South Carolina chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the Coronavirus also has the affected the activities of the Foundation itself. 

"For instance, we have eight walks around the state each year," to raise awareness of suicide prevention, called the Out of the Darkness walks, he said.   But this year, "those walks could not be held in person.  So we had to turn them into virtual walks.  We called them experiences. - 'yappy hour,' where we could bring our pets on Zoom - and we spend time with one another and talk about the experiences we've had around suicide," which include suicide survival and coping with the loss of loved ones to suicide.   

This year's Out of the Darkness virtual walk is Sunday, Nov. 8.  Details can be found at afsp.org.

AFSP area director John Tjaarda named some of the signs that family and friends of a potentially suicidal person can look for: "There are three main groups for suicide warning signs," he said.  "Talk, behavior and mood.  Sometimes they'll be straightforward and talk about ending their lives.  They'll talk about feeling trapped, being in unbearable pain.

"With behavior, you might see some issues with sleep, you might see them acting recklessly.  You might see them giving away possessions.  And then mood - depression, apathy, rage."

Suicide is the 11th leading cause of death in South Carolina, Tjaarda said, and a person dies by suicide every 11 hours here.  There are three categories of risk factors associated with suicide, he said: health factors such as depression, bipolar disorder, personality disorders, PTSD and substance abuse.  Environmental factors include access to lethal means of taking one's life.  And historical factors include a family history of suicide or mental conditions, and child abuse.  "A myriad of conditions can contribute to suicide," said Tjaarda.

Allen said the indicators of suicide could be exacerbated by the effects of COVID on people.  "The effects of COVID could be anywhere from loneliness - you know, not everyone does well being sent home to work.  They miss the connection with people.  They're at home, they're alone.  If they're sick themselves, that's a contributing factor.  If they have loved ones that died, that's a contributing factor.  So there's many things that in this COVID year have contributed to the mental strain of our society as a whole." 

It's too early to know if COVID has affected the rate of suicide, Allen said.  Tjaarda added that the rate is calculated about a year after the fact to be all-inclusive and accurate.   But he stressed the importance of talking with friends or family who may be contemplating suicide.

"Have a real conversation," said Tjaarda.  "Half the time, people just want to talk.  They just need to get something off their chest.  Don't be afraid to ask someone directly about suicide.  It's not going to put the thought in their head.  More often you're gonna bring it out so they'll admit it, and they'll start talking about it. 

"It's awkward and it's uncomfortable.  But if it saves a life, it's gonna be worth it."