Suicide, Anxiety: Virginians Struggle With Mental Health Due to COVID-19

Danville will host an Out of the Darkness experience later this fall. Participants will walk in their communities, showing their passion for preventing suicide. Contributed photo.

By Amie Knowles
October 1, 2020

Local groups offer ways to help, detail warning signs.

BRISTOL – Dealing with quarantine can be hard. Even now with restrictions being lifted, you may work, go to school and even talk to friends virtually. But that isolation takes a toll. Thoughts of depression, anxiety and suicide can start creeping in.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that an average of 132 people commit suicide every day. Throw a pandemic into the mix, and there’s an even bigger issue.

A CDC report from June 24 to 30 shows that 40.9% of adults have had at least one mental health effect. That includes symptoms of anxiety or depression (30.9%), symptoms of trauma or stressor-related disorder (26.3%) and started or increased substance use to cope (13.3%). But if you want to talk, there are people who want to listen.

Kimberly Barber, program manager at the Bristol Crisis Center, expressed that talking is one of the first steps in suicide prevention.

“I think that people underestimate the amount of people that actually have suicidal ideation,” Barber said. “It’s stigmatized, so a lot of people never really talk about just that part. We get statistics for people that have completed suicide and there’s a lot of lacking information for people who have suicidal ideation. That stigma kind of ends up being a barrier for discussion about that and the openness about investigating suicide in the community.”

At the crisis center, Barber and colleagues research the creation of suicidal thoughts in hopes of forming a clearer picture of the specifics.

Exploring emotions

Oftentimes, people don’t speak about suicide because of the stigma associated with the conversation. Talking about feelings is taboo in some communities. But Lorrie Eanes-Brooks, a board member for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in Virginia, noted that it shouldn’t be.

“Talking about it is what saves lives. Letting people know that it’s something you can talk about. Just like we talk about our aches and our pains, like if you have a headache,” Eanes-Brooks said. “We can talk about, ‘I feel like something’s off with me and I’m not sure what it is.’ We can do that.”

Experiencing suicidal thoughts is also far more common than many people realize. In a preacher or a convicted felon, it’s likely that the thought of ending life occurs from time to time.

“It really can impact anybody,” Eanes-Brooks said.

The board member cautioned against labeling specific groups as more prone to suicidal thoughts than others.

“I do caution against, you know, the stats are out there, the numbers are out there of which group may be on the rise, but then when we tend to look at one specific group, we tend to not look at everyone,” Eanes-Brooks said. “I generally suggest to people to keep an eye on the people in your circle. You know those people best. You would know those people, if there was a change in their behavior.”

However, there are some individuals that might experience a heightened risk.

“Generally the same marginalized groups that are affected by a lot of other health issues are more affected,” Barber said. “Generally people who have had other suicide attempts before. Across the board, individuals in under-served populations are more susceptible to suicide.”

Suspecting signs

Sometimes, a loved one’s suicide comes out of nowhere. Other times, hindsight reveals clues.

“People think that people who are suicidal are always down. They have moments where they aren’t down, but what they need to be looking for is a change,” Eanes-Brooks said.

Sometimes there are a few red flags. If a person pulls away from friends and family or if they quit hobbies they previously enjoyed, those are signs something’s wrong.

“Mounting statements about things like, ‘I don’t want to be here anymore,’ or ‘I can’t do this anymore,’” Barber said. “Or just a general aspect of being overwhelmed or hopeless.”

Eanes-Brooks revealed that those experiencing suicidal thoughts could also address the conversation with humor.

“A lot of times they’ll say it in a joking way to gauge your response. It’s historical and you read a lot of articles about, ‘We thought they were just joking.’ So a lot of times they’re doing that to gauge your response,” Eanes-Brooks said. “The important thing when someone says something regarding that is that you ask them nonjudgmentally, ‘Are you okay? Is that really what you’re thinking?’”

What to do

If a loved one divulges suicidal thoughts, surprise or shock are natural emotions for the informed individual. As hard as it may seem, it’s important to remain calm and listen.

“I would have an open and honest nonjudgmental, non-advice giving conversation. A lot of times, advice-giving can sound judgmental. And a lot of times, they’re not looking for you to fix their problem; they just need someone to hear them and for someone to validate the fact that they feel the way they are feeling,” Eanes-Brooks said.

Barber also suggested not giving advice, but rather offering a listening ear. Lessening the stigma allows for more openness and honesty. That simple act often leads to broader conversations and helpful opportunities.

“You can ask, specifically, ‘Have you been thinking about suicide?’ A lot of times we think people might divulge that information in a conversation about what they’re going through, but that’s not necessarily the case. Specifically asking if you’ve been thinking about suicide, like, it’s okay to talk about it,” Barber said. “And then if that’s the case, to make sure they don’t have access to firearms. You can say, ‘Can I take that for you?’ Or if they have access to medication or if they take a lot of medications, ‘Can I help you manage your medications’ so they don’t have access to that all at one time, those kinds of things.”

Grieving the loss

Unfortunately, even the best prevention methods don’t always work. People still think and act for themselves, regardless of another individual’s best preventative efforts. Suicidal loss spans much further than the individual that took their life.

“That is considered a vicarious trauma. Statistically, for every suicide completed, about 135 people are impacted,” Barber said. “So it has a huge impact on the community.”

The Bristol Crisis Center offers community training sessions at local churches, which spark conversations about suicide and trauma.

The Danville group hosts a support group, Survive and Thrive. It’s not currently meeting because of COVID-19, but the group allows those with loss commonalities discussion opportunities.

“It can have many different impacts. There can be feelings of guilt, feelings of ‘What could I have done?’” Eanes-Brooks said. “It can affect everyone differently, but it is a very unique type of loss, that most loss survivors reach out to other loss survivors. There’s a lot of peer support for that because it is a very unique type of loss.”

Pandemic prevention

Typically, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention hosts several Out of the Darkness Walks. This year, many groups couldn’t meet normally in September because of COVID-19 restrictions. That doesn’t mean organizers took a backseat. Instead, the Danville group started something new.

On November 7, those supporting suicide awareness and prevention will walk. Instead of strolling at Anglers Park along the River Walk Trail in a large group, participants will pick up packets for at-home use.

“So what we’re going to do is we’re going to have t-shirts, beads – all the things that you would have on the walk – will be picked up at Two Witches,” Eanes-Brooks said. “We’re going to have a drive-thru pickup.”

Each team will walk in their community. As usual, participants will solemnly display their personal connections with suicide through the color of the beads around their necks.

“I will have a drone going to all the different places to take pictures and video of what everyone’s doing and we’ll stitch all that together to share with everyone so that each team gets to see the other teams and all that good stuff,” Eanes-Brooks said. “So yeah, we’re still here. We’re still doing what we can.”

A different response

The crisis center in Bristol also promotes suicide prevention, despite COVID-19 restrictions.

“We’ve done and are doing smaller community events, like there’s a couple of churches where we’re going and we’re taking the precautions to make sure that our numbers are smaller. And so we still do smaller community informative events,” Barber said. “We’ve had some virtual events, where we’ve done a video here at the crisis center, where we tied ribbons out here for awareness. We put it out there for people. They could come here individually and tie that ribbon on the tree and write a loved one’s name on it. You can really come up with some different sorts of ways to express that grief.”

For those experiencing suicidal thoughts – or know someone who is – the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline operates 24/7. The number is 1-800-273-8255. Those seeking the crisis text line may text TALK to 741741.

Amie Knowles reports for the Dogwood. She can be reached at [email protected]

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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