By now, many people have accepted social distancing as the new normal — but it still creates significant strain. Patients with existing mental health disorders may face an increase in symptoms, and those who previously felt fine might start to develop problems. Human beings are social by nature, and spending too much time alone can adversely impact well-being.
Experts fear that social isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic may lead to an increase in suicidal behavior. Could the nation face another wave of deaths, not from illness, but despair? What can you do as healthcare professionals to stem the tide?
How Social Isolation Increases Risk
Various studies indicate that social isolation leads to increased psychological problems. While it is challenging to evaluate prisoners kept in solitary confinement—as many had preexisting mental health conditions—research in this area indicates that as many as two-thirds have some form of mental illness. Research into isolation poses multiple ethical dilemmas due to the impact on the psychological health of participants. However, it is critical to note that in studies performed to date, volunteers typically “tap out” well before the conclusion of the investigative period. They can’t bear the impact on their psyches.
When your patients have time alone, they tend to ruminate, and their minds start to gravitate toward the worst-case scenario. With no outside stimuli to contradict the negative thoughts, they can start to believe they are real. This principle applies even if those ideas are outlandish, such as the world coming to an end. When isolation is coupled with world leaders not knowing what happens next during this pandemic, one can understand how anxiety levels soar.
Your patients might experience unprecedented levels of fear and uncertainty right now. What warning signs of trouble should you look for in them, as well as the people you love?
Warning Signs of Suicide
To prepare yourself, learn about the warning signs of suicide, including the following.
- Threats of suicide: It’s natural to want to dismiss these—it’s terrifying to hear that someone you provide care for wants to harm themselves. Do take all threats seriously.
- Obsessions with death or dying: The suicidal person might make statements like “Everyone will be better off when I am gone.”
- Loss of income, home, or job: This stressor has a huge impact right now. Already, 6.6 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits as their former places of work shutter due to the pandemic. That’s a jump in claims of 3,000%. While many state governors have declared temporary moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures, that doesn’t change the fact that these folks will need to come up with the money to catch up on their bills later. The specter of pending homelessness can drive the most mentally healthy individuals to despair.
- Freely giving away items: When a person makes an inner promise to end it all, they can begin making final arrangements, including giving away favorite things.
- Increase in substance abuse: You should worry that alcohol sales jumped 243% since the pandemic began. Substance abuse lowers impulse control, which can make someone on the fence about suicide decide to act.
- Pre-existing mental health conditions: Having a diagnosis doesn’t mean that an individual will break down under the stress of social isolation, but it does put them at an increased risk. Plus, many patients may now lack the support networks they previously established with in-person therapy and groups.
How to Intervene
If you fear one of your patients is suicidal, you might feel especially helpless right now. However, you can take steps to assist them.
- Help find resources: a depressed patient may lack the energy to reach out to their therapist or locate new resources. Help them contact their previous provider to explore telemedicine options. Go online to find a shareable list of virtual support groups where they can connect with others during social isolation.
- Refrain from blame or lectures: Chances are, your patient knows deep down that their behavior is irrational and hurts others, but pointing that out will only make them feel worse. Instead, offer nonjudgmental reassurances that you are there from them. Avoid grandiose promises that sound false, like, “Everything will be okay.” Instead, you can encourage them by saying that while things are challenging at the moment, these circumstances could open the doors to new opportunities.
- Be there: You might not be quarantined with the person, but you can assure them that they can call or text you. With relaxed rules surrounding telemedicine, you might be able to arrange appointments via the internet.
- Reach out for help yourself: You can contact the National Suicide Hotline for advice and encouragement on how to deal with this situation. Do the same if you recognize any of the warning signs in yourself. After all, as a healthcare professional, you face increased risks of contracting the coronavirus and significant stress. A caring voice can make the difference between life and death.
Managing Social Isolation & Preventing Unnecessary Deaths
Right now, everyone feels elevated levels of fear and anxiety, and this scenario can lead to an increase in suicides when coupled with social isolation. However, you can make a difference by recognizing the signs and taking action to show that you care about your patients.