Covid-19, social isolation, and a looming uptick in suicide

Now is the time to bolster our connections and remind ourselves that we are more than what we do for others. Why now? Shouldn't we be stockpiling soup and hand sanitizer? Sure. Do that. But those self-preservation measures need to be applied to your soul, too.

The Covid-19 pandemic is unlike anything we've seen in our lifetime. Years from now as these words rest idly on a remote server somewhere, most of us will replay scenes that left emotional imprints. The look on the faces of an older couple who found the bread shelves empty. The awkward denial of a handshake. Most will have a story of a seemingly banal decision that turned out to significantly alter their future. Most will reflect on this time. Most of us.. because some reading (or writing) this today may die.

Maybe this will all blow over, too.

Do we even have the luxury of thinking about mental health when our physical health is so directly threatened?

We know that suicides increase when the economy declines and when our social fabric unravels. Suicide experts call these risk factors -- characteristics or conditions that increase the chance that a person may try to take their life. And while it's not surprising unemployment, job insecurity, and many other factors associated with economic downturn are associated with poor mental health and suicide, the recent increase in ammunition sales means easier access to lethal means - adding another risk factor. While these sales are presumably driven by the desire to protect, their mere presence makes it easier for suicides to occur. And with 51% of suicides in the US involving a firearm, this uptick in ammunition sales removes a barrier for some to take their own life.

To counter these risk factors, we can improve our protective factors. In this time of social distancing, we have to get creative. While some of us may cherish the solitude, we also need human connection to thrive.

We are already experiencing loss of human life that may grow to proportions unprecedented in our lifetime. So as your survival instincts grow stronger, make sure your inventory of emotional supports is also stocked. Paradoxically, the larger the death toll becomes, the more numb to its effects we can become. Researchers examining the large scale loss of life, such as during a genocide, describe a phenomenon called 'psychic numbing,' where the saving of human life is valued less the higher the number of people who are impacted. People are much more willing to aid identified individuals than unidentified or statistical victims. We tend to turn the volume down on our emotions for fear of being overwhelmed.

And although social isolation can even sound nice for a change (who doesn't love lounging in their pajamas with Netflix?), it is a luxury few can afford. A 2015 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that 59% of American workers are paid on an hourly basis. This injects solitude and financial despair into the equation -- secondary effects of the Covid-19 crisis that could compounded the loss of life. 

So what do we do?

Reinforce to those you love that they are more than a paycheck. That who they are as an individual is exactly why you love them -- not for what they do.

Acknowledge, identify, accept, and internalize that you, too, are intrinsically valuable - even if you do take that last loaf of bread, forget to wash your hands, or lose your job. And know that if you lose someone near to you that they would want you to feel that value, as well.

Let's do this. Together. (But for real, wash your hands).