Photo illustration courtesy Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

By Charles Westfall

The United States is in the midst of two public health crises: the coronavirus pandemic and rising suicide rates. The countless disruptions in people’s lives have added to the already difficult task of preventing suicide.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in July that U.S. adults are experiencing considerably more mental health challenges during the pandemic. Approximately twice as many respondents reported serious consideration of suicide in the previous 30 days than did adults in 2018. Key groups with worse mental health outcomes and those who have seriously considered suicide were younger adults, people of color, essential workers and unpaid adult caregivers.

The increase in thoughts of suicide and suicide attempts could stem from the following risk factors during the pandemic:

  • Social distancing, which can evoke feelings of loneliness and isolation
  • Financial hardships
  • Decreased in-person support at church, school and among neighborhood connections
  • Constant consumption of news and social media

Health conditions and historical and environmental factors also can play a role in the increased risk for suicide.

Because social interactions are less frequent or happening virtually, becoming more aware of changes in a loved one’s behavior may be key to identifying warning signs. Many of the signs that someone may be considering suicide will be harder to read or detect during times of physical distancing.

Warning signs to watch out for are:

  • Changes in tone, language and time of day when texting, talking or posting online. For instance, the middle of the night can be cause for concern because disruption of sleep can worsen suicidal behavior, increase feelings of isolation and lead to reliance on substance use.
  • The frequency with which a person answers calls or texts.
  • Changes in the frequency and content of what they might be sharing online or if they share media links with you. This behavior can show what information is central to their view or their surroundings.

It is important to trust your instincts if you feel like someone may be in trouble and take action:

  • Ask direct questions without being judgmental.
  • Do not leave the person alone.
  • Do not swear to secrecy.
  • Get professional help even if the person resists.

Lastly, with stressors being amplified during the pandemic, anyone is prone to more mental distress during this time, and help is available. These times are tough and full of the unknown. Know that you are not alone, seek help and remember that storms don’t last forever.

If you or a loved one is in crisis, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, which is available 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-8255.

Charles Westfall, LMFT, is the manager of adult outpatient services and a member of the suicide prevention steering committee at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital, a contributing participant in the San Diego County Suicide Prevention Council and an affiliate faculty member at the University of San Diego. 

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