September is National Suicide Prevention Month, and a local mental health agency is working hard to make sure people have a place to get help if they have thoughts of suicide.
Lynne Grey, MA, LPC, LCAS, CCS, mental health and substance use disorder clinical director at Partners Health Management in Morganton, said she’s concerned about people with mental health issues putting off treatment due to fears of contracting COVID-19.
“We are actually seeing a decrease in calls to our crisis lines and a decrease in behavioral health emergency department visits since March,” Grey said. “This decrease certainly does not indicate that behavioral health crises have decreased during the pandemic. In fact, opioid overdoses continue to increase since March. We believe that members are not accessing the ED for fear of COVID. Our behavioral health providers have also experienced a decrease in clients during this time, which is worrisome. We have been working with our providers to implement innovative telehealth solutions to engage their clients in treatment — an example is the Partners Mobile Connect program, where we distributed 500 cell phones with data plans to our providers to help engage members without access to video technology.”
She said a variety of new challenges brought on by COVID-19 restrictions may negatively impact people’s mental health these days, including:
» Loss of recreational activities, such as gyms, social outings and sporting events
» Isolation from support systems, including church and community groups
» Financial and/or housing insecurity due to loss of income
» Loss of loved ones due to death from the virus
» Health insecurity, including concerns that they or their loved ones will get sick
» Increased anxiety about the rising numbers of COVID cases and deaths
» Increased depression due to the negative news cycle and compounding social unrest
» Loss of health insurance due to loss of job, resulting in the inability to access behavioral health care services
People should pay closer attention when interacting with friends and family and take note if they seem to be struggling emotionally.
“It can be quite difficult to notice signs of suicidal intentions in loved ones,” Grey said. “Many suicidal individuals feel shame for having these thoughts and will hide them. They may also fear being hospitalized.”
She described what people should look for if they suspect someone they know may be experiencing thoughts of suicide, including:
» Social withdrawal and isolation
» Giving away sentimental items
» Decline in appearance and hygiene
» Rapid increase in mood—this could indicate that the individual has made a plan for suicide, set a date, and is feeling relief
» Increase alcohol and/or drug use
» Engagement in high risk behaviors with a lack of concern for personal safety
» Preoccupation with death
A recent article published in The News Herald noted that approximately 11-15 percent of deaths in North Carolina in 2018 were attributed to suicide. Grey shared what steps people should take to help suicidal people step back from the edge.
“React calmly and without judgement,” she said. “Develop a plan to ensure the individual is not left alone. Help the individual understand their importance to loved ones. Often the suicidal individual feels they are a burden on others, and it would be better if they were gone.”
People can receive crisis counseling by calling the national suicide prevention hotline at 800-273-8255 or the Partners 24/7 crisis line at 888-235-4673.
“If the individual is already engaged with a psychiatrist or other behavioral health provider, call that after-hours crisis line together,” Grey said. “An involuntary commitment is a last resort, but will keep the individual safe. Partners’ 24-hour call center can dispatch a Mobile Crisis team to help with this process.”
If you are the one experiencing suicidal thoughts, Grey recommended reaching out to loved ones and behavioral health providers for help. The local emergency department at the hospital can serve as a last resort, if needed.
She said engaging in self-care activities is key to protecting one’s mental health during the pandemic.
“Make sure you are eating well, sleeping well and taking any prescribed medication,” Grey said.
“Get out of the house and engage with others.”
Volunteering may be a good way to sideline negative thoughts.
“Research supports that engaging in volunteer activities decreases feelings of isolation, hopelessness and loneliness,” Grey said. “Helping others increases connection and self-worth.”
She said now is the perfect time to take advantage of virtual telehealth.
“Due to COVID, we have seen an unprecedented expansion in virtual options for behavioral health services,” Grey said “Psychiatrists and therapists are offering video sessions.”
For more information on mental health treatments and suicide prevention, visit partnersbhm.org.
Staff writer Tammie Gercken can be reached at email@example.com.