With September being recognised as Suicide Prevention Awareness month, one mental health clinician believes this observance is an ideal opportunity to share resources and stories in the effort to shed light on this “highly taboo” and stigmatised topic.
According to the Archdiocesan Family Life Commission’s Crystal Johnson, every year, thousands of individuals die by suicide leaving behind friends, loved ones and families to navigate the tragedy of loss.
Johnson noted during the AFLC’s Topic Thursday live segment on Facebook, September 24, that in many cases, those affected by suicide loss “are left in the dark”, feel ashamed and stigmatised, which can only prevent them from talking “openly”.
She explained that the purpose of Suicide Prevention Awareness month is to reach out to those affected by suicide, raise awareness and connect individuals with suicidal thoughts or ideation to treatment services.
In her typical format for Topic Thursday’s, Johnson began with the clinical definition, this time of the continuum of suicide. Suicide is the death caused by self-directed injurious behaviour with any intent to die. The suicide attempt, she shared is a self-directed potentially injurious behaviour with an intent to die which failed.
By definition, suicidal thoughts or ideation is when a person has a thought of killing themselves which can range from a vague wish to a plan or intent.
COVID-19 and an increase in suicide
While Johnson acknowledged there is “little data” on COVID-19 and the impact on mental health, COVID-19 has added “immense stress” to everyone around the globe.
“What the data has shown is that there are psychological and social effects of the pandemic such as distress, insomnia, constant fear, substance abuse, anxiety, among many psychiatric disorders.”
Suicide in the vulnerable population including individuals with preexisting psychiatric disorders and low resilient persons will “definitely” get the brunt of it, Johnson added.
“And also individuals who reside in high COVID-19 prevalent areas or had families who unfortunately passed from COVID,” Johnson said.
The COVID-19 crisis may increase suicide rates during and after the pandemic. The mental health consequences of the pandemic including suicidal behaviour are likely to be present “for a while” and it may peak later towards the end of the pandemic.
Johnson commented that there is a pervasive awareness of an uncertainty of the future and understanding that the pandemic is far from over.
She shared some examples of notable pandemics documented around the world. She mentioned that the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in Hong Kong in 2003 resulted in suicide deaths of people over the age of 65. According to Johnson, research indicated that this increase in suicide was attributed to the fears of contracting the disease, fears of being a burden to family members, coupled with social isolation and psychological distress.
Johnson gave data from the National Centre for Biotechnology Information as it relates to COVID-19 related suicides.
Two particular cases identified, a 65-year-old female committed suicide over the fear of COVID-19, and a student committing suicide by jumping from a hospital ward after being quarantined for suspicion of the disease.
In this regard, Johnson shared some preventative measures published online from the Journal of the Institute of Medicine. The Journal suggested that prevention of psychiatric conditions be divided into three categories: Universal Preventative Intervention, Selection Preventative Interventions and Indicated Preventative Intervention.
These categories are now being applied to prevention efforts for the COVID-19 pandemic.
In exploring each category, Johnson explained that the universal approach is designed for everyone in the general population regardless of their risk of suicide. Johnson hoped that social media campaigns will be promoted in an effort to promote mental health coping strategies.
The selective approach, a subgroup for increased risk of suicide involves persons who have a history of psychiatric disorders, COVID-19 survivors and front-line health workers.
In this approach, she stressed the importance of taking a “break” from watching news stories of COVID-19 as this can “bring the spirit down”.
The indicated approach, on the other hand, is designed for individuals who have a risk factor or condition that puts them at a very high risk for suicide.
“That means those who had a recent suicide attempt. They need special attention…”
Ultimately, Johnson asserted that suicide prevention amidst COVID-19 pandemic is an important and difficult issue. Research studies are needed “right now” on the mental health consequences that can be mitigated during and after the pandemic. It is hoped, Johnson said, that the efforts of clinicians, researchers, and policy makers will reduce COVID-19 related suicides.
If you know anyone who is struggling with thoughts of suicide, depression, suicide, anxiety, contact Life Line at 645-2800, 645-6616 or the Archdiocesan Family Life Commission at 299 1047.