The debilitating physical effects of Covid-19 have become well known over the last several months. Shortness of breath. Exhaustion. A hacking cough that won’t go away. But as the pandemic stretches into another season with no end in sight, the emotional impacts of Covid-19 are proving to be just as painful.
It’s also getting to more of us than ever. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll reports that for the first time, more than half of American adults believe the pandemic is taking a toll on their mental health.
“We have unprecedented environmental stressors happening right now,” said Kristin Mathre, a licensed marriage and family therapist and chief operating officer of Suncoast Center. “This is a time of trauma, and it affects all of us.”
Suncoast Center is one of more than two dozen members of Zero Suicide Partners of Pinellas, a countywide alliance of local mental health and substance abuse treatment organizations, advocacy groups and government entities who share a common goal of creating a better safety net for people who are struggling emotionally and are at risk of suicide.
Mathre, who has been an active participant in the initiative since its inception several years ago, sat down virtually with The St. Pete Catalyst to talk about issues related to mental health and suicide during the Covid-19 era.
The Catalyst: First, how can people who are feeling like they might harm themselves reach out for help?
KM: Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255. Most people don’t know that when you call the national lifeline, it is actually being answered from the place the call originates. Locally, 211 Tampa Bay Cares and Personal Enrichment Through Mental Health Services answer the calls. People who call the lifeline can get directly connected with services they need right over the phone. I tell everyone I know to put this number into their phones because you really never know, especially now in the time of a pandemic, when someone might need it. If we think we don’t know someone who has thought about taking their life, it just means we haven’t asked the question. That doesn’t mean thinking about doing it means you need to be locked up or hide it. It just means you need to reach out and get help.
The Catalyst: Have you seen more people reaching out who are feeling suicidal?
KM: There has absolutely been an increase because people are being so overwhelmed by what’s going on. This whole thing has knocked people off their feet economically, it’s affected their sense of well-being, it’s impacted relationships – everything has gone cattywampus. That’s when people start to think “I can’t figure out what I can do that’s a better option [than taking my life].”
The Catalyst: What do the numbers look like?
KM: So far, this calendar year we’ve completed over 10,000 suicide prevention plans. Last year, over the entire year, we did 8,959 plans. These plans are demonstrated to decrease suicidal behavior by 45-50 percent. This is something that really works. There’s also an app so you download and do your own safety plan with your friends and family.
The Catalyst: Do you think lack of insurance is causing people not to seek treatment?
KM: A lot of people have lost their insurance, but I want them to know that our mental health agencies are here for them. You can get services even if you’ve lost your insurance. People who have insurance may think they can’t afford their copayment, but a lot of companies have waived their copayments. Either way, that shouldn’t stop anyone from reaching out for services.
The Catalyst: No one knows when the pandemic will end. How does that uncertainty play into the mindset of someone considering suicide?
KM: One of the things I’m reminded of right now is the book All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten. When everything else is uncertain, take a look at the things you can control and be certain about. Have a regular schedule, eat healthy, stay hydrated and find something useful to do every day. Make progress on little things so you have that sense of control. Have a plan in place so when you feel like you’re struggling, you know how to distract yourself, and practice that plan like you would a hurricane or fire safety plan.
The Catalyst: What are the common challenges that people are struggling with?
KM: People have lost their jobs. They’re trying to balance homeschooling kids while working themselves. There are stresses related to relationship issues. Then there’s the challenge of isolation. We depend on human connection and it’s way easier to misunderstand people when you don’t have visual social cues. When we’re connecting through phones or texting or other things, it’s easy for people to misread the message and assume something’s wrong when that may not be the case.
The Catalyst: Does something like a pandemic cause people who may never have considered suicide to feel like they have no other options?
KM: One thing that’s important to know is that having suicidal thoughts does not mean you have a mental health issue. We need to understand just because you’ve had these thoughts it doesn’t mean that you’re crazy, and you should know that there are professionals that can help you.
The Catalyst: How can friends and family best support loved ones who may be at risk?
KM: First and foremost, don’t be afraid to ask the question. “I’m really worried about you. Have you been thinking about hurting yourself?” Then, you need to be prepared for that answer to be yes, and it’s important to have a plan in place. Ask them if they have the phone number for the lifeline and offer to call the number with them. When people have a positive experience in getting help, they’ll be less afraid to reach out next time they need it.
The Catalyst: What else?
KM: Friends and family need to know that most of the time, people who have thought about taking their lives don’t think about it all day long every day, and oftentimes, just being that friend and sounding board who is genuinely concerned makes a huge difference. You also might want to address the issue of guns. Say “hey, do you have a gun? Can we help get you a gun lock? Or can we lock your gun up somewhere else?” My experience is when I say I’m really worried about you and I care about you enough to actually say these words – because they’re hard – that people are receptive to hearing them.