Reduce Suicide Risk by Increasing Social Supports During COVID and Beyond
September 1, 2020
This article focuses on the topic of suicide prevention. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, immediately contact local crisis services or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255). For more tips on what you can to do to prevent suicides, visit familyaware.org/education/suicide-prevention/.
You’ll also note that we use the term “physical distancing” rather than “social distancing.” We made this change to underscore that separation between people’s bodies is necessary for minimizing virus transmission, but connectedness among people is necessary for their overall wellbeing.
Back in March, the orders for people to stay at home and limit contact due to the novel coronavirus caused immediate concern in the suicide prevention community. While the stay-at-home advisories have been essential for public health efforts to combat this pandemic, we knew that this disruption could trigger factors associated with increased suicide risk, such as
- isolation or feeling cut off from others
- access to substances at home
- access to lethal means (i.e., any instrument or object used to carry out a self-destructive act)
- job loss and insecurity
- unwillingness to get help due to stigma.
Most recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) report showed that during late June 2020, 40% of U.S. adults struggled with mental health or substances use. One out of every ten adults reported that they had seriously considered suicide in the last 30 days (as compared to 4.3% over the course of a year in 2018) with significantly higher rates among
- people aged 19-24 years (25.5%)
- minority racial and ethnic groups (Hispanic respondents , non-Hispanic Black respondents )
- self-reported unpaid caregivers for adults (30.7%)
- essential workers (21.7%).
These numbers are alarming. However, in addition to becoming more aware about the risk of suicide, there are practical ways that family members, friends, and communities can increase protective factors to support ourselves and our loved ones. Fortunately, feelings of “connectedness” or social bonds are a leading evidence-based protective practice in suicide prevention.
Both for yourself and your loved ones, having strong and reliable social supports are essential for wellness. Here are seven strategies you can use to boost your support system during COVID and beyond.
The typical ways we could expect to engage with people through work, school, community events, or family gatherings are no longer taking place in the usual way. Who have you stopped seeing because your routine changed?
Take five to ten minutes to write down a list of people you enjoy and haven’t been able to spend time with in the last month (or longer). Now pick one to three of the people on your list, reach out to them, and set up a time to talk over the phone, video chat, or meet up in a safe, physically-distanced setting if your community allows.
Meeting new people gets harder as we get older, but the pandemic makes it seems next to impossible. Just like meet-up events happened in person, there are a number of online meet-ups still taking place! The virtual setting may even ease some of the social anxiety and pressure that people experience when trying something new. A virtual meet-up from the comfort of your home gives you the option to turn off your screen or end the meeting if it’s just not for you!
If you’re looking for in-person options, look for local volunteer opportunities in your area. Many food rescue organizations need in-person help to deliver necessary nourishment to community members. Not only will it feel good to meet new people, but you’ll also be making a huge difference in your community!
We urge families to practice appropriate physical-distancing measures and follow their state’s guidelines when gathering in person. Take advantage of opportunities to meet outdoors, whatever that means where you live, such as your yard, a city park, the beach, a running track or open field, a hiking trail, etc. For these activities, follow current public health guidelines, (which when we wrote this, advise keeping at least six feet apart, not sharing food, and encouraging people to bring their own food/seating, and wearing a mask or other facial covering for extra protection). Here are a few ideas you might try:
- Host a fire
- Start a book club
- Take a walk or ride bicycles
- Lead a group exercise or other way to move your body (yoga, pilates, Zumba, tai chi, etc.)
- Practice spirituality
- Try meditation or mindfulness together.
Our day-to-day responsibilities can take up so much of our time that it feels like there is no time left in the day to socialize. Try to set up a recurring weekly or monthly check-in with one or more friends or family members. Having something consistent on the calendar will give you something to look forward to and plan your other activities around it.
Some communities are beginning to offer municipal classes and events for free or at low cost. Check your town or city’s website and library website to see what your community might offer.
If you currently practice or want to reconnect with your spirituality, many religious and spiritual communities are offering services and events virtually. Some congregations are even delivering parking lot services!
Friends and family members are wonderful, but sometimes clinical support may be necessary to help manage daily or chronic stressors. Many providers are offering telehealth and, for the time being, insurers are covering fees and sometimes even waiving co-pays. If cost, geographic or transportation constraints, or time have been barriers to your ability to see a therapist, this may be a good time to revisit your search. And if you feel self-conscious or fearful of being seen going to a therapist, take advantage of the convenience and privacy of therapy online. You can take your phone outside or sit in your car if your home doesn’t feel private enough. For tips on finding care, visit https://www.familyaware.org/education/finding-care/.
Even when we have strong social supports, sometimes shame, depression, or other mental health conditions can wrongly convince us that we are a burden to the people we love. Here’s a resource to make asking for and getting help easier: check out the NotOk app! Created by some amazing young people, this resource allows teenagers and adults to program trusted contacts into the app. When you are struggling, tap one button on the app and the trusted contacts are alerted that you need help. This takes away the second-guessing (the inner voice that says, “I shouldn’t bother them”) and makes getting help easier.
You can also set up code words, items, or phrases with your family or friends to let them know you need help. Ever heard of the “blobfish”? One of our staff members lovingly refers to the days that she feels “off” as “blobfish” days. When she’s having a difficult day, she sends a picture of the blobfish to her trusted contacts and they know she needs a little extra support. Depending on the person, adding a little humor to the process can make it easier to reach out for help.
Consider how people from different aspects of your life can help you feel connected and supported, whether they are relatives, close friends, members of your faith community, co-workers, neighbors, friends of your loved one, or others. For many people, helping others helps them to feel well; you reaching out to others may be just what they needed, too! For yourself, when people ask how they can help, don’t be shy! We all need support from time to time and, when you accept their offer, you may be helping them feel connected and supported, too.