In addition to the clear physical health consequences of COVID-19, the ongoing pandemic has affected the mental health of many people. As we head into the holidays and COVID-19 rates steadily rise in many parts of the country, it’s important to be aware of suicide risk factors that may be exacerbated by continued distress and isolation. If you or someone you know is exhibiting warning signs of suicide, it may be time to seek professional help.
The Psychological Impact of Pandemics
The physical effects of COVID-19 — such as fever, cough, loss of smell, and shortness of breath — have been well documented for months. Psychological symptoms, however, are just as serious and are sometimes easier to overlook. The combination of isolation, economic stress, and a collective sense of anxiety has created an environment that can cause or worsen mental health conditions, including severe depression and anxiety. If you’re experiencing fear, frustration, sadness, loneliness, and feelings of overwhelm, you’re not alone.
For people who tend to suffer from seasonal depression — which often occurs as the days get shorter and the weather grows colder — this year will likely be even worse.
We’ve seen the mental health consequences of pandemics before. Following the 1918 Spanish flu, research in Norway revealed that hospitalizations for mental health disorders increased over the next six years. Individuals who had survived the Spanish flu reported suffering from sleep disturbances, depression, and difficulty coping, and suicide rates increased in the United States between 1918 and 1920.
Mental Health Issues Related to COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused severe mental and emotional stress for people all over the world. This stress stems from a variety of factors, including family concerns to work-related issues.
Many circumstances linked to the coronavirus pandemic can contribute to mental health issues, including:
- Fear over contracting COVID-19, especially if you or a loved one is in a high-risk demographic.
- The inability to be with loved ones who are hospitalized due to COVID-19.
- Grief over losing a loved one to COVID-19 or other illness.
- Drug or alcohol abuse.
- Being under stay-at-home orders and confined to close quarters with an abusive family member.
- Feelings of loneliness and isolation.
- Financial hardship due to job loss.
- Anxiety due to working in a high-risk environment.
- PTSD, which has affected many healthcare workers caring for COVID-19 patients.
Suicide Risk Factors and Warning Signs
Learning the risk factors and warning signs of suicidal ideation can help you or someone you know seek professional help before the situation worsens.
Suicide risk factors typically include:
- Previous suicide attempts.
- Family history of suicide.
- Family history of child abuse.
- History of mental health issues, especially depression.
- History of drug or alcohol abuse.
- Impulsive or aggressive behavior.
- Feelings of isolation and being cut off from other people.
- Difficulty accessing mental health care.
- Physical illness.
- Loss of a job, relationship, or finances.
Warning signs of suicidal thoughts vary from person to person and can be difficult to notice. Some common warning signs of suicidal thoughts include:
- Withdrawing from others more than usual. During stay-at-home orders, this may appear as a failure to respond to phone calls, text messages, or other forms of communication.
- Talking about suicide or making statements such as, “I wish I was dead.”
- Acquiring a weapon or other means of completing suicide, such as a gun or pills.
- Mood swings.
- Preoccupation with death or dying.
- Excessive drug or alcohol use.
- Changes in eating or sleeping patterns.
- Giving away belongings.
- Engaging in risky behavior.
- Saying goodbye to people as if for the last time.
- Personality changes.
The unique circumstances we are now experiencing, such as increased physical distancing and little social interaction, can make it hard to identify warning signs of suicide. Many of us have experienced changes in our daily routines and may be engaging in other abnormal behaviors, such as drinking more alcohol.
Even with stay-at-home orders and social distancing in effect, you can still reach out to others and seek help if necessary. Arrange with a group of friends or family members to check in on each others’ mental health, especially if you feel that someone you know may be at risk.
If you think you or someone you know is at risk of suicide, seek help immediately. Reach out to a friend, a spiritual leader, or a mental health professional. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. The call is free and confidential, and you’ll be able to speak to a trained crisis worker who works at a crisis center close to you.
Even if you don’t feel that you are at immediate risk of hurting yourself, regular appointments with a mental health professional are a good idea for anyone suffering from depression or anxiety. Don’t be afraid to seek help — many people are having difficulty coping with the unprecedented circumstances of COVID-19, and some therapy practices offer free or low-cost mental health services to help those in need.
Karen Eisenbraun is a Certified Holistic Nutrition Consultant. She holds an English degree from Knox College and has written extensively about topics related to holistic health, clinical nutrition, and weight management.