Monday Musings...The Other Global Pandemic We're Going Through

I have a rather unusual habit. I’m not even sure how it started, but I’ve been doing it for a number of years now. Every night before I go to bed, I read the obituaries.

You may think that is rather morbid, and it is, but I am fascinated to find out each night, who has died in the county I live in. I read with interest the person’s age, and whether a cause of death was mentioned. I am curious about how big their family tree was. And then what was written about their life – the final epilogue in the story of their life that the world gets to read.

Well, no doubt we are living in a death culture in this current pandemic. Every day flashing across our news feeds is the latest ‘count’: Breaking News: Active COVID-19 cases: 72,447| Recovered 329,138|Deceased 12,665. Every day. So, in a sense you are all, like me, reading the obituaries daily.

But what I am discovering in my neck of the woods is that COVID-19 is not the real threat for death and dying. There is a bigger beast, a more viral virus. And that is suicide.

I honestly don’t think there has been a week go by, when I haven’t read of a death by suicide in my area since we went into lock down in March. What you should know is that the suicide statistics in Canada have not changed in a number of year - roughly 4000 Canadians die by suicide each year. According to Statistics Canada the death rate by suicide has remained fairly consistent since 2000 at 11 deaths per 100,000. The county I live in is approximately, that size and yet my nocturnal observations have found way more than that number. The deaths by suicide in my area are consistent though with national trend, in that they are mainly men. I have noted, sadly, a growth in younger males in their 20s.

Why am I writing about this topic that you may find morbid and depressing? Because we need to sound the alarm bells! We spend so much time worrying about people’s physical health regarding COVID and the yearning to find a vaccine, that we are neglecting an equally important need, which is people’s mental health.

Now, you’ve likely seen articles about depression and anxiety, and acknowledgement of mental health strain on individuals during COVID, but those articles are rarely front and center. They should be. While losing someone to COVID is terrible – don’t get me wrong - it is often anticipated. The person perhaps was elderly or had an underlying health condition that compromised their immune system in most cases. They received the diagnosis, treatment ensued, but unfortunately, they passed away. With suicide, it is sudden and unexpected. The person was most likely suffering in silence as the C. S. Lewis quote says. And the regrets, guilt, and fear flood in by family and friends: if only I knew he was struggling…. I wish I could have done something or got them help. The aftermath of grief relating to suicide is horrendous. And now, due to the restrictions placed upon everyone, you can’t even get together with others to mourn together and share in that pain of the loss, where often you try to make sense of it all, when there’s none to be had, but it still helps.

I wonder what the suicide death rates are for Canada since the pandemic? Japan recently released their data on death from January 2020 to October 2020, but it comes with a bit of a shock: more people have died from suicide in just the month of October (2,153), than all the deaths from COVID since January 2020 (2,087). Why? What is happening? The article gives us some clues that can be applied to our own local situation as well.

First, recognize that we’ve been living in some form of shut down for months, and none of us can see ‘the light at the end of the tunnel.’ There is a lure of a vaccine dangling hope in front of us, but no one knows for sure when that will happen. For many, jobs have been cut or lost, producing unknown stress and putting many on the edge of a personal financial and emotional crisis: how do I provide for my family? And now it’s Christmas, the most expected expensive time of the year – there's no holiday cheer when your wallet is empty.

But there’s more to think about. South of the border the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that that since the pandemic hit, 1 in 4 young adults have seriously considered suicide. I don’t doubt that it is the same for us here as noted by my nightly obituary perusals. And again, the question is why.

No doubt, the isolation young people are feeling, and the lack of social interaction in person, have had an effect. Simply hanging out with friends can be a buffer against mental health struggles. But this same feeling simply can’t be found over Zoom or on online video game platforms. Being physically face to face helps you pick up the signals, those non-verbal clues, that someone is struggling. It's evident that loneliness and a sense of loss is looming everywhere.

In Canada, a survey released by CMHA and UBC in June 2020, showed equally troubling data on the increase in suicidal thoughts in all age groups since the pandemic began. In 2019, 2.5% of Canadians reported having suicidal thoughts, but in May of this year, that number rose to 6%. The survey revealed that those with pre-existing mental health problems were at greatest risk (18%), but so were other groups such as parents with children under the age of 18 (9%). Over half (53%) of that group reported suffering with additional anxiety related to money, job loss, having enough food to feed their families, increased conflict with their children, yelling and shouting more, disciplining their children more, and using hard words more often.

Right now, you may not have any symptoms of COVID, but you’re likely feeling stuck, lonely, uncertain and frustrated, and for some this is leading to an increase in suicidal thoughts.

Here are some tips for you to help your friends and family members who may be struggling with mental health:

· Reach out to them; don’t wait for them to reach out to you

· Notice if they’re withdrawing by not returning messages, or responding to texts, or not posting on social media

· Ask: “How are really doing?” Cut through the “I’m fine” typical response

· Then take the time to truly listen; don’t rush conversations; acknowledge the struggle they’re having; suspend your judgment; have them help you understand what they’re going through

· Let them know that their life matters to you – be specific in why that is, not just some pat answer

· If you’re able, give a parent a mental health break. If they are in your circle, offer to take the kids for a few hours. Or if you’re a neighbour, can you offer to watch the kids playing outside on the lawn. Make a gift basket to encourage a family on your street.

Mental health affects everyone, especially right now! You need to recognize the stresses yourself or others have in this unscripted time in your lives. Connection is critical. That’s compromised now and will be even more so at Christmas when you can’t get together with all of your family and friends. So be intentional and make those connections over phone or Zoom, or in conversation as you’re passing your neighbours on the street. You won’t just make someone’s day, you may be saving a life!

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© 2020 Connect the Thoughts: Charlene Mahon