By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 47,511 Americans died by suicide in 2019. The CDC’s most recent statewide statistics from 2017 indicate that suicide is the second leading cause of death for New York state residents aged 15 to 34.
From 2016 to 2018, death by suicide increased in Upstate by 3.2% among all age groups with the average age at death 47.3 years, according to the New York State Department of Health.
Although little data has been gathered about the pandemic’s influence on suicide, area experts report that it appears that rates of death by suicide have not increased because of COVID-19.
“Early indications have shown from some reporting states that there’s no change or else declines from previous years,” said Missy Stolfi, master’s in education and area director for American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Her area covers Buffalo to Utica. “Suicidal ideation has increased during COVID, but we’ve also seen people reaching out to get help whether calling crisis lines, telehealth options for mental health.”
She said that telehealth has helped break down mental healthcare barriers, including stigma, transportation, childcare, scheduling conflicts and mobility. That has helped mitigate the negative factors the pandemic has brought, such as isolation, lack of regular coping mechanisms and normality, and anxiety about finances, the future and becoming ill.
“One thing that’s important to keep in mind whether pre-pandemic or not, is suicide risk is complex,” Stolfi said. “It’s easy to point to one thing to say, ‘That brought about someone’s death by suicide.’ There are a lot of things we can do to mitigate risk.”
One of the key things is to talk about and normalize mental health. The pandemic has promoted mental health as an important topic. Many people have become more active in checking in with one another and have demonstrated more understanding about others’ mental state. Self-care has also become more widely accepted.
“More people checking in created a sense of connection,” Stolfi said. “People were more in touch with family and friends because they were not running around. People slowed down, reassessed and found new ways to connect. The patterns of taking care of ourselves shifted and they continue to.” She hopes these trends of connectedness continue long-term.
As people begin to return to workplaces and normal activities, new anxieties are arising such as worries about returning to work, new virus variants arising, and what other unknowns the future may hold.
“These are all very valid feelings,” Stolfi said. “COVID has not gone away. We got used to being in our safe spaces with our dogs.”
Brenda McKnight administrative volunteer and presenter with I Am Isiah in Rochester, a grassroots suicide awareness organization, also highlighted the pandemic’s “silver lining” of increased awareness to mental health. However, “the isolation has affected many households. The pandemic has brought out a sense of reality that they have been suffering.
“We’ve gotten a lot of calls. For those who didn’t know they suffered, it’s brought changes in their lives. It’s brought out a lot of anxiety from the isolation,” she said.
She added that the stress of isolation has given way to complacency among people who have become so accustomed to staying home that they no longer feel comfortable going out. They feel insecure going among other people to work or for recreation.
I Am Isiah operated an appointment-only food cupboard throughout the pandemic to help relieve the stressors of a tight budget. The group also operates a self-help group for women and provides information on suicide to the public.
“Death by suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary situation,” McKnight said. “That’s the devastating part. There’s no coming back.
“I feel like everyone can be depressed at any time. It doesn’t mean you’re suicidal but if it gets to a clinical stage, it looks darker. You need to look at how to alleviate that earlier on. Once an individual decides to take their life, they take their pain and give it to their family they leave behind. That pain is lifelong.”
Anyone struggling should contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.
Signs a Person May Be Suicidal
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention shared a few signs that a person may be thinking about suicide:
Talking about wanting to die.
Looking for a way to kill oneself.
Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose.
Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain.
Talking about being a burden to others.
Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs.
Acting anxious, agitated or recklessly.
Sleeping too little or too much.
Withdrawing or feeling isolated.
Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge.
Displaying extreme mood swings.
The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. Warning signs are associated with suicide but may not be what causes a suicide.