Baystate: Mental health as important as physical during pandemic

  • Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 9/16/2020 4:48:16 PM

It has been six months since the pandemic hit Franklin County, and when people talk about the symptoms of COVID-19, they think “trouble breathing, fever, headache, loss of taste and smell, and a cough.” But, what some don’t think about is the pandemic’s impact on behavioral health, like depression, anxiety, substance use disorder and suicide.

With September being National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) having recently released a study highlighting the pandemic’s impact on mental health, Baystate Health officials are providing information to help people recognize when their loved ones are struggling.

The study, according to Baystate Health, found increased levels of symptoms of anxiety and depressive disorders, substance use and suicidal ideation among adults. It also identified populations at increased risk, including young people, racial and ethnic minorities, essential workers and caregivers of adults.

“Social distancing and isolation during the pandemic has resulted in extreme loneliness for some people, especially the elderly, who may already be dealing with a variety of mental health conditions such as depression, which can lead to suicide,” said Dr. Barry Sarvet, chair of the psychiatry department at Baystate Health. “The economic hardships caused by unemployment, the loss of your own small business and attempting to meet growing bills are also contributing to a increase in suicides.”

Sarvet added that many people in the Pioneer Valley are left coping with the loss of a loved one to COVID-19.

“The normal grieving process necessary for people to heal from losses like this are often disrupted by infection control measures,” he said, “and this increases the risk of depression in bereaved individuals.”

CDC statistics

■Forty percent of American adults reported experiencing mental or behavioral challenges tied to the COVID-19 crisis and measures, including social distancing and stay-at-home orders.

■Nearly 11 percent of the 5,412 adults surveyed between June 24 and 30 reported having considered suicide in the 30 days prior. The percentage was higher among those between the ages of 18 and 24, with about one in four saying they considered suicide.

■Nearly 31 percent of unpaid caregivers and 22 percent of essential workers noted they had thoughts about ending their lives. Respondents who are Black or Hispanic were also well above average.

■Anxiety or depression symptoms were reported by one-third of respondents.

■About 26.3 percent reported experiencing trauma and stress-related disorders because of the pandemic.

Sarvet said mental health conditions are often seen as the cause of suicide, but suicide is rarely caused by an single factor. Many people who die by suicide are not known to have a diagnosed mental health condition. Other problems often contribute to suicide, including issues related to relationships, substance use, physical health and career, financial, legal and housing stress.

Warning signs of suicide

■Feeling like a burden

■Being isolated

■Increased anxiety

■Feeling trapped or in unbearable pain

■Increased substance use

■Looking for ways to access lethal means

■Increased anger or rage

■Extreme mood swings

■Expressing hopelessness

■Sleeping too little or too much

■Talking or posting about wanting to die

■Making plans for suicide

If a friend or family member is exhibiting those behaviors or thoughts, Sarvet suggests asking them what their loved ones can do to help.

“You can point out your observation that they seem sad and can encourage them to get help initially through their primary care doctor, who can assess the situation and prescribe medications or make a referral to a mental health professional,” he said.

“People who attempt to take their own lives often are profoundly hopeless and need people around them to notice their suffering and to help them to seek treatment,” he continued. “It’s time for us to let go of the stigma that has made it so difficult for people to talk about these things.”

The recent study also cited that one in four people between the ages of 18 and 24 considered suicide over the past month.

“In teenagers, depression is often complicated by disciplinary problems, school underachievement, interpersonal conflict, and drug and alcohol problems,” Sarvet explained. “It takes a great deal of understanding and compassion to notice the depressed person in the middle of all of this, who may be at serious risk for suicide.”

He said there are ways adults, including parents and caregivers, can recognize depression in teens:

■Changes in school performance

■Excessive worry or anxiety; for instance, fighting to avoid bed or school

■Hyperactive behavior

■Frequent and disturbing nightmares

■Increased aggression or disobedience

■Frequent temper tantrums

Safety plans

Families should work with their doctors and/or therapist to create a written “suicide safety plan” should anyone begin to experience thoughts of harming themselves, Sarvet suggests.

When creating the plan, he said people should consider listing:

■Warning signs or triggers of a developing crisis, such as thoughts, images, mood, situation or behavior

■Internal coping strategies, such as relaxation techniques or physical activity, including engaging in favorite hobbies

■People and social settings that can offer distraction

■People you can ask for help

“The suicide death of a loved one or close friend can have a profound impact on survivors, who often feel partly responsible for the tragedy,” Sarvet said. “Suicide touches everyone.”

Contacts

For immediate help, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

For support in coping with the suicide loss and a list of support groups, visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention at afsp.org.

You can also talk with your primary care physician for a referral to a mental health professional or visit your local emergency room.




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