By Francine Broder, PsyD
continues to increase in the United States and around the world (Hedegaard et
al., 2020), and it is within this context that COVID-19 showed up. Risk factors
associated with an increase in suicide, such as social isolation and an
economic downturn, are front and center as we all grapple with how to adjust to
living with a pandemic.
distancing gives rise to closed businesses and cancellations across all
industries. Many Americans are out of work, struggling with managing day-to-day
life with little to no income and facing uncertain financial futures. Economic
downturns have historically been associated with increased suicide rates
(Oyesanya et al., 2015) and, sadly, the current situation may be no different.
While social distancing interventions have been implemented to
curb the spread of the virus, an unintended consequence is the negative impact
reduction in human contact has, especially for those who are emotionally
vulnerable. Loneliness due to social isolation has long been understood as a risk
factor for suicide. For example, rates of people dying by suicide spiked
following the SARS outbreak in 2003 (Yip et al., 2010).
Even before COVID-19, approximately
25% of Americans aged 65 and older reported suffering from subjective feelings
of isolation (National Academies of Sciences Engineering Medicine, 2020). A
major component of the treatment program developed by Wenzel, Brown and Beck (2009)
focuses on helping suicidal patients develop social support networks. Likewise,
Miller et al. (2017) developed the Emergency
Department Safety Assessment and Follow-up Evaluation (ED-SAFE) for suicide screening,
and provision of safety plans. They found that the follow-up phone calls built
into the protocol yielded a significant decrease in harm.
How Can We Help?
Adam Grant, an organizational
psychologist and self-described introvert, suggests that it is important to
keep in mind that even people who feel best with a great deal of solitude
require social interaction. In a recent New York Times article, he discussed
how a caring, yet brief encounter can have a positive impact and can leave us
feeling “seen.” He shared that as a graduate student working during winter
break after his roommates went home for the holidays, he felt isolated and
lonely. He made a list of the 100 people who mattered most in his life and
spent a week writing each an email about what he appreciated about them. As the
replies rolled in, he no longer felt lonely. In other words, it doesn’t
necessarily take a major effort to go from feeling lonely to feeling connected.
As people at risk for suicide may think twice before heading to over-crowded emergency rooms, it is imperative that we reach vulnerable people in a suicidal crisis. There are suicide prevention interventions that were designed to be delivered remotely via telemedicine platforms. And results from the randomized clinical trials, Caring Letters Intervention (Luxton, et al., 2014), suggest that a simple intervention such as regularly communicating through personalized letters sent through the mail reduced suicide rates in people who had made attempts.
pandemic adds another layer of challenge to suicide prevention, but if we
remember to differentiate physical distance from social and emotional distance,
and that small acts of connection have demonstrated reduction in feelings of
isolation and disconnection, we can mitigate the adverse effects of social
isolation and loneliness.
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Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK)
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