State Watch

Coronavirus outbreak raises threats to mental health

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Suicide hotlines across the country are reporting new increases in the number of calls they are fielding since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak and new social distancing requirements that are keeping people apart.

The calls are just one piece of a growing mental health crisis that has come with the fear of a global pandemic.

People have been isolated due to social distancing polices meant to slow the virus’s spread, which has contributed to an already existing trend of increased loneliness in the population that had led to its own epidemic of early death across the country.

In Boston, a help line run by the nonprofit group Samaritans said it received about 350 calls a day over the last week, a hundred more calls than are typical on a given day. A spokeswoman at the national Crisis Text Line told the Boston Globe they handled 6,000 conversations last week, about twice as many as usual.

In Portland, police Chief Jami Resch said at a news conference that 911 calls reporting suicide threats or attempts had jumped 41 percent over the same period last year. FirstLink, a North Dakota-based nonprofit that runs a national suicide prevention hotline, said call volumes have spiked 300 percent. In Idaho, call volumes have doubled.

Some states have included mental health protections in their responses to the coronavirus outbreak. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said this week more than 8,600 mental health professionals have volunteered to provide free online services to those in distress. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) signed an executive order that will provide phone assessments to those who have mental illness or emotional disturbances.

“There’s an epidemic of loneliness in the Untied States. Loneliness is such a risk factor to your health,” said Richard Schwartz, a psychotherapist who heads the Illinois-based IFS Institute. “This obviously has the effect of increasing that, especially for people who live alone, and more especially for people who live alone and are already lonely and who don’t have a lot of loved ones left.”

Current restrictions on movement necessary to starve the coronavirus of the opportunity to spread more widely has locked about 1.5 billion people in place across the world.

Some families cannot interact with older relatives who might be especially at risk of catching the virus, and in the United States, more Americans live alone now than ever before. The financial hardships created by a locked down economy only add to the stress; millions of jobs have been lost in the last month alone as restaurants and retailers shut down.

“It is absolutely natural for each of us to feel stress, anxiety, fear and loneliness during this time,” said Hans Henri Kluge, the World Health Organization’s regional director for Europe.

“The disruptive effects of Covid-19 provide us all with an opportunity: An opportunity to check on each other, to call and video-chat, to be mindful and sensitive to the unique mental health needs of those we care for. Our anxiety and fears should be acknowledged and not be ignored, but better understood and addressed by individuals, communities, and governments,” Kluge said.

Schwartz said the social isolation can compound feelings of depression because staying at home robs people of distractions they might otherwise enjoy. He said it is crucial for families to check in on loved ones, even if a phone call or a video chat is the only option.

“This is a time for people who have the capacity and have loved ones around to do what they can to reach out to those who are alone, even if it’s virtual. And these days it’s better to be virtual,” Schwartz said.

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