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With the media and public’s focus on the directly related COVID-19 death toll and the related economic downturn, there isn’t nearly enough attention on the mental and emotional toll this crisis is taking on millions of Americans already vulnerable to mental health or substance abuse issues. The data is sparse, but it isn’t pretty. In Tennessee, in one county (Knox) there were nine suspected suicides in 48 hours, which was 10% of the previous year’s total. In areas around the country, suicide hotlines are bracing themselves. In Los Angeles, the L.A. Times reported,
As cases mount across the country, topping 300,000 on Saturday, so too do fear and anxiety — over getting COVID-19, over loved ones who have it, over jobs lost because of it. With each day of uncertainty that passes, mental health services are becoming increasingly vital. And strained.
In New York, which has more confirmed coronavirus cases than anywhere else in the U.S., Gov. Andrew Cuomo has stressed that “the mental health impact of this pandemic is very real.” More than 6,000 mental health professionals have signed up to provide free online services in the state.
At Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services, a nonprofit organization, crisis counselors fielded more than 1,800 calls related to COVID-19 in March, versus just 20 in February.
The top concerns? Anxiety and stress, health issues, relationships, loneliness and isolation. One in five COVID-19-related calls included “suicidal desire.” Although there has been only a slight uptick in overall call volume, Didi Hirsch is anticipating a huge increase in the coming months.
In Montana, the onslaught has already hit. Local news reported,
The Department of Public Health and Human Services says since March 13th they’ve seen around double the usual volume of calls to the Montana Warm-Line and the Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
The combination of economic stress and social isolation is a perfect storm not just for those already vulnerable to suicidal tendencies, but those who may have been on more solid footing before this crisis.
It’s not just suicides, either. Anecdotally, I’ve heard from those with experience with addiction that this crisis will take a toll on those with substance abuse struggles. In Upstate New York, local news reported,
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, a reminder of the opioid epidemic. The Oneida County Overdose Response Team on Tuesday issued a spike alert. There have been 20 overdoses in two weeks, two of them, fatal. Two of the overdoses involved synthetic marijuana and cocaine, indicating that some may be unknowingly using a harmful synthetic opioid that could increase the chance of a fatal overdose.
“Could it be more usage with the increased anxiety from this panemic? Absolutely,” says Cassandra Sheets, CEO of the Center for Family Life & Recovery. “When people are struggling with addiction, when you add more stress to it, it can compound the addiction. That’s just a given.”
Sheets says it’s too early to know for sure if there’s a correlation, adding that seasonal changes also tend to increase usage and even fatalities.
On the front lines of the opioid epidemic, and now, the coronavirus pandemic-law enforcement. First responders now have another risk factor to think about when they have to administer Narcan to a person who is overdosing.
As we consider the death toll due to COVID-19 while making public policy decisions, the death toll related to our lockdown measures must also be considered.Published in