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  • Writer's picturePaula Fontenelle

The Coronavirus and Suicide: How to help those at risk

For more than a decade, I have been working with suicide prevention and I know from experience that it is in times like these that we need to be extra careful with those at risk. But this article is not for them only, it is for all of us who are in the privileged position to help others, for those of us who woke up today not worried about where we will get the money to feed our kids, for those who can sit in front of the TV to binge-watch, and for those of us who are wondering how they can support others but don’t know how. There are many ways in which we can do that, so keep reading and find the ones that fit you.

When it comes to the Coronavirus and suicide, three visible impacts immediately raise a red flag: society’s increased isolation to contain the spread, the financial strain it has been provoking in families, and the limited access to mental health treatment many patients are experiencing.

Isolation is a central drive to suicide. Most people who contemplate it believe that what they should not share their pain. They feel ashamed, scared, and uncertain of how they will be perceived by others. Every time I am contacted by someone who is going through this, and I respond, they react with surprise. Every single time. You know why? Because they did not expect it. Suicidal people are certain no one cares, and even when they are not, they don’t know how to express what is going on with them.

The stigma surrounding suicide silences society, including those who are contemplating it.

Mental illness is also a key risk factor for suicide and right now, the quarantine is forcing clinics to shut down services and offer remote sessions only. This helps only partially because not all patients have access to it, particularly those who are served within community and agency settings. They will also have a hard time buying their medication because these are the individuals who are paid by the hour in jobs that are in a halt right now, so they might not have the financial means to afford their pills. Add this to having less social contact and limited medical assistance in hospitals who are rightly prioritizing the Coronavirus, and we have a concerning picture ahead of us.

We have been bombarded by an overload of information about what we can’t and shouldn’t be doing right now, so I decided to flatten this curve. I will focus on positive actions that will make a difference and will strengthen our human connection.

Here are some ideas:

1. Keep physical distance, but don’t disconnect — Use your time to check in with friends and loved ones. There is no reason not to phone (yes, the old-fashioned way), message, video chat, whatever works with you. If you know someone who struggles with mental illness, particularly anxiety and depression, believe me, chances are that they might be feeling worse right now. These conditions thrive during uncertainties and fear. Let them know you care. Create online communities. Again, we have to keep our physical contact at a minimum but this does not have to apply to emotional connection.

2. Maintain an exercise routine — This is key to maintaining mental health. Gyms are closed? Search for online classes, there is an infinite number of options out there. Invite friends to do it together. Offer practical help to those in need: Are they of age? Many elderly rely on their friends and family member to bring them food and medication, but this may not be possible right now. Offer to do their groceries for them. If you prefer to minimize risk, use online shopping, most supermarkets are still delivering. Older people have a hard time using technology, so do it for them.

3. Be compassionate, share your privilege — Many workers who are paid by the hour are in dire need of financial support. If this is possible for you, be there for them. For example, if you have a cleaner, keep the payment even if they are not able to provide the service. Establish a time frame that is comfortable and affordable to you and let them know what you can do. Maybe pay them in advance for future service? Give them this peace of mind. Buy gift cards from local small services, such as salons, pet shops, etc. Many offer this option online.

4. Track medication intake and needs — The drugs used for mental illness have unique characteristics. They have to be taken regularly because if not, it takes the patient weeks to regain mental, emotional, and behavioral stability. Ask those you know about their supply, whether or not they could use financial assistance and if they are older, offer to pick them up for them.

5. Parents need support — Parents have been hit hard by this. They suddenly have to home schools their kids and keep a balance between keeping their kids safe while offering them a distraction, meals, and emotional support. Check in with them regularly, maybe take turns in homeschooling, for example by doing it online. Exchange your experiences, foster community building.

6. Attend to spiritual needs — During a crisis, those who have faith and spiritual beliefs meet their communities in search of comfort but this is not possible right now. Again, use online tools to pray together, create forums and chat groups, for example. Invite your religious leaders to do the same, maybe they just don’t know how. If you don’t either, ask your 10-year-old child, they will. :)

7. Talk about emotions — Keep a line of communication open about fear, anxiety, and sadness. We are all experiencing these in much higher intensity than normal, so let’s share not only what we are feeling, but what has been working for us.

8. Last, but not least, foster joy - Send memes, watch a comedy together, play a game with your family, anything that will generate smiles and laughter. Create positive memories so that in the future, fear and anxiety will not be the only things to remember this moment by.

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