Mental health experts brace for rise in suicides as holidays, pandemic collide

Local Coronavirus Coverage

KINGSPORT, Tenn. (WJHL) – As the COVID-19 pandemic persists, dragging into the winter and holiday season, mental health experts are concerned about the potential of rising suicide rates.

News Channel 11’s Bianca Marais spoke with Tim Perry, Senior Vice President of Children’s Service at Frontier Health about the mental health crisis that seems to be getting worse as the pandemic drags on.

“We’ve seen and expected to see an increase in anxiety issues, increase in depression, general worry and general nervousness. We’ve seen an increase in substance abuse, we’ve seen an increase in people having suicidal thoughts and plans, so all those we’ve seen an increase in since the beginning of the pandemic back in March,” Perry said.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), commonly referred to as seasonal depression, is a form of depression that begins in late fall and goes through the end of the winter. Perry explained that it has the same characteristics of any other type of depression – sadness, low energy, low mood, feeling restless inside. It also has with it, though, things like difficulty to concentrate, sleep patterns, either wanting to sleep all the time, or not wanting to sleep at all, changes in appetite, cravings of carbohydrates typically comes with SAD, it can have have variations from mild symptoms to very severe symptoms. About 10 million people in this country suffer annually from severe SAD. 

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the amount of people suffering from depressive disorder went up from 22% to 30% between April and the end of November 2020 in Tennessee. That “household Pulse Survey” data also showed that the national level went up from 23% to 30%.

Perry explained that 10 million Americans suffer sever SAD symptoms annually, and 66 million people in the United States suffer mild symptoms.

“This year, the uniqueness of what we’re going through and we really don’t even know yet what to expect – this is the first time we’ve ever gone through a winter with a global health crisis/pandemic before. So, the concerns of the people in the mental health field is individuals already dealing with stress and depression and the anxiety that has come with this pandemic, already before the holidays come with the holiday stress that’s natural during the holiday time, add to that the people that suffer from SAD, depression – those can be much more severe this year. It could be overwhelming to individuals trying to cope with SAD, on top of holiday stress, on top of the pandemic stress and anxiety – that can be simply overwhelming – and we can expect, I think, to see more people who have never had SAD having it this year because of the depression that’s already in place so many times with the pandemic, and I think we’ll see more of that with the things that come with SAD,” Perry told News Channel 11’s Bianca Marais.

In a survey conducted in June 2020, East Tennessee State University researchers found that Tennesseans actually showed symptoms of both anxiety and depressive disorder at a much higher rate than data found by the CDC in 2019.

Self-help is an option for some who struggle with depression.

“We know that light is associated with this disorder, the lack of sunlight and the shorter days has an effect on SAD, so one of the ideas that we’ve noticed does help people is to light up the house, especially in the mornings when they get up and start to move around – light the house up, the brighter the lights throughout the house, the better, and it does have an effect on that, so brighten up the house more. Take one day at a time, whether you’re dealing with this depression or you’re dealing with the anxiety of the pandemic, try not to project onto tomorrow your concerns about how long this is going to last or who is it going to effect or how it’s going to be for the people that I love. Take ever day one day at a time and exist through that day, survive through that day. Get outside and exercise, take some walks if you can whether the weather is permitting, or even just walk around the house on the inside. Exercise is a key to coping with stress and it helps with SAD as well. Laughter – laughter is good medicine. A joke of the day or a book of jokes or a sitcom, something that makes you jovial and laughter, it does help, believe it or not,” Perry suggested.

Keeping a routine and a healthy diet not high in carbohydrates or caffeine is key, Perry said. Alcohol should only be used in moderation, as it is a depressant and can actually trigger more depression.

If self-help does not work to ease symptoms of depression, Perry has a message: “Especially if you’re thinking that you don’t want to live anymore, that you don’t want to go on with your life, please reach out to someone, a professional. We’re all in this together, we’re all suffering from stress and depression and anxiety in this pandemic. It’s not unique to one person or to one occupation or another.”

Melissa Taylor is the nurse consultant for emergency preparedness for the Tennessee Department of Health. She also maintains that the suicide rate is higher due the the coronavirus pandemic.

“Mental health in general has been effected by the pandemic since the beginning, and going into the holidays and going into the winter season we’re just going to see an increase in the prevalence of depression and anxiety that we have seen since the beginning of the pandemic,” she told News Channel 11’s Bianca Marais. “Across the board there has been an increase in suicide and I have to feel like that it is probably related to the increased stress and anxiety that people are going through at this time. There’s a lot of disconnection, and people feeling isolated and lonely, due to having to isolate, having to stay in and not having that involvement with others and loved ones during this time.”

Identifying “red flags” might be important when a friend or family members seems to be going through more than just coronavirus isolation.

“I would not be surprised to see an increase in what we typically see in the holiday season or the winter season when it comes to suicide or increased depression, anxiety rates,” Taylor warned. “I think the biggest thing that we need to do is check on each other, we need to keep lines of communication open. We live in a world of technology, and those people have smart phones and iPhones and they’re able to FaceTime when we can’t be there in person. So, keeping an active dialogue with your loved ones through the holidays can help decrease that loneliness. If you haven’t heard from someone in a few days, check in on them, see if they need anything, and that goes for friends or family.”

Frontier Health offers a free COVID hotline, open seven days a week from noon until 10 p.m. at 1 833 4FH COVID (1 833 434 2684).

“It’s a free service that is available to anyone that is having any difficulty, whether it’s financial, mental health, or anything else related to COVID,” Perry said.

The Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services and Department of Health kicked off a new campaign centered around the risk of drug overdose and suicide during the winter holidays.

The campaign, called ResilienTN, focuses on building resilience and strengthening community connections to prevent the tragic loss of life to overdose and suicide. 

According to state officials, the month-long ResilienTN campaign features several opportunities for Tennesseans to receive training in overdose reversal and suicide prevention. 

Anyone in need of a referral to addiction treatment services can call or text the Tennessee REDLINE at 800-889-9789. 

For a mental health crisis or someone considering suicide, call the Statewide Crisis Line at 855-CRISIS-1 (855-247-7471).

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