My anxiety and despair hit me full force on a December night five years ago and in that moment the invisible burdens I felt caused an enormous amount of emotion to pulse through me. I ran to my bathroom, locked the door, unscrewed the lids to my medication and swallowed hundreds of pills.
I survived my suicide attempt. Many are not as lucky.
As COVID-19 surges throughout the U.S. and the world, with more than 3.5 million cases in this country — including an increase in the number of cases in 41 states and 138,000 deaths — there is a concurrent surge in suicides, with numbers expected to grow even higher.
In a recent report, from the Well Being Trust and the Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies in Family Medicine and Primary Care, researchers assert that deaths through suicide and substance use are an epidemic within a pandemic.
The study “combines information on deaths of despair from 2018 as a baseline, projected levels of unemployment from 2020 to 2029 and then estimated the additional annual number of deaths to range from 27,644 (quick recovery, smallest impact of unemployment on deaths of despair) to 154,037 (slow recovery, greatest impact of unemployment on deaths of despair), with 75,000 being the most likely.”
This projection is significantly higher than the Centers for Disease Control 2017 data for suicide, when there were 47,173 deaths and 479,000 emergency room visits as a result of self-inflicted injuries.
As the pandemic moves into its fourth month, many are perhaps feeling what I felt on the night of my suicide attempt; trapped in emotional pain, fighting with their family, while their future remains uncertain. But those anxieties are exacerbated as COVID-19 has increased unemployment, economic insecurities, forced quarantining and remote work.
Earlier this month, the federal government announced a $53 million two-year, digital effort called REACH aimed at stopping suicides, especially among U.S. veterans. Organizers intend to pair the public and private sectors, in concert with research, to help meet its goal.
This is crucial, especially since research shows millions are experiencing an unprecedented assault on their mental health, including young children.
A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found over 300 percent more U.S. adults are experiencing symptoms of serious psychological distress than they did in April 2018.
In its latest annual Stress in America study, the American Psychological Association reported that based on a 10-point scale (in which 10 means “a great deal of stress”) the average stress level for adults is 5.4, which APA reported to be the first “significant” increase since 2007, when the survey was first conducted. The survey also found that more than 80 percent of U.S. adults report feeling a significant amount of stress because of the uncertainty of the nation’s future.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration, which operates a mental health hotline, reported text messages increased 1000 percent from last year.
The University of Chicago researchers in the ongoing COVID-19 Response Tracking Study, funded by the National Science Foundation, found that Americans are the unhappiest they’ve been in 50 years. The survey also uncovered that people who are in close proximity to coronavirus hotspots experienced greater feelings of loneliness.
Other findings show people in the U.S. suffer from anxiety and/or depressive disorder.
In this dire environment, it is essential that every time a person washes their hands they consider doing a “mental health check” with themselves. If a person feels they are unable to get help on their own, it’s essential that they reach out to a family member or friend to assist them.
For example, the National Alliance on Mental Illness provides referrals to anyone with mental health needs and offers COVID-19 resource and information guide. The United Way supports 211, a confidential and free service that helps people 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They help people with local mental health support, pay for housing, find food, access free child care and offer many other essential resources.
As the federal government, states, municipalities, local organizations and communities struggle with the challenges of rising COVID-19 cases and the enforcement of laws and policies to prevent further cases and deaths, a parallel heed to caution and prevention is necessary for the mental health and well-being of all Americans.
Government officials, policy makers, health care providers, business leaders, parents and individuals need to stay informed about strategies and resources available to prevent suicide and ensure the mental wellness of all Americans.
I know firsthand what happens when a person ignores their mental health. I almost lost my life because I didn’t get the help I desperately needed. I was one of the lucky ones as my doctors and therapists were able to save me, and I’m so grateful to be alive.
It’s critical that families and friends openly talk with each other about their mental health. Mental health and physical health are linked. To ignore mental health puts lives in peril. Treating mental health as seriously as physical health needs to be an urgent global, national, local, family and personal priority now and going forward.
The mental health ramifications from COVID-19 will long outlast the virus itself.
Sonja Wasden is co-author of "An Impossible Life," and she is mental health advocate and keynote speaker.