This year, Suicide Prevention Month – as well as Suicide Prevention Week and World Suicide Prevention Day – feels different than in years past. That’s because it’s taking place during a pandemic. With COVID-19 now being our new normal, many new things have become commonplace. Masks are as essential as our keys. Social distancing is expected. In many cities, virtual school is the rule rather than the exception. Most states have instituted guidelines or mandatory rules encouraging people to stay home and avoid unnecessary visits – even to friends and family.
But just because these things have been part of our lives for the past six months doesn’t mean people like them or are used to them.
In fact, the longer this pandemic goes on, the more likely it is that it will affect our mental health. Evidence already shows that in the absence of social contact and the regular structure of a school day, emotional and behavioral issues have increased for teenagers.
In fact, young people in Walnut Creek, California made a greater number of suicide attempts and engaged in more self-injurious behavior than in previous years. Local ER staff say they saw more suicide attempts in a month than they typically see in an entire year. And calls to national suicide prevention hotlines (such as 1-800-273-TALK (8255)) have increased thousand-fold over last year. Which brings us to our main point:
This year, the awareness that Suicide Prevention Month brings is more important than ever.
Five Steps to Prevent Suicide
In previous years, we discussed the five steps one can take to help someone considering suicide. These five steps, first initiated by the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for National Suicide Prevention Month, are supported by reliable scientific research and data. This year, the nonprofit has made sure to emphasize that these steps are utilized, even during COVID-19.
Especially during COVID-19.
Their message for Suicide Prevention Month is worth repeating here:
Physical distancing during COVID-19 doesn’t have to mean feeling alone. In this environment, it is even more important to check in on your loved ones and support each other within these parameters. And, if you can’t physically be there for someone because of the limitations introduced by the pandemic, you can still adapt these five steps to stay supportive and connected.
The five steps are:
- Keep them safe
- Be there
- Help them get help
- Follow up
Here’s how the organization recommends you adjust the five steps for COVID-19 if you can’t physically be there for the person contemplating suicide:
If you suspect a friend or family member is thinking about suicide – whether you’re talking to them on the phone or in person – just ask them straight out: “Are you thinking about suicide?” Of course, it might be harder to see the signs of suicide when you’re not physically there with the person. Look and listen for the following red flags:
- Changes in tone or language when texting or talking with you on the phone
- Posting online more or less, or doing so at unusual hours of the day
- Not answering your calls or texts
Also, if there’s someone you know has struggled with suicide in the past, take the time this month to call them up and ask how they’re doing. Don’t wait for them to come to you.
2. Keep them safe.
If you suspect your friend is serious about killing themselves, ask them if they have a plan and/or the means to do so. If your friend answers in the affirmative, encourage them to place distance between themselves and their chosen means of suicide – and encourage them to do it right away. Then, ask them honestly whether they can do something to make it harder for them to access those objects in general. Afterward, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline together.
If you think they’re in imminent danger, call 911.
3. Be there.
Although you might not be there, physically, with your friend or family member, you can still call them up or use video-conferencing platforms. In fact, it’s essential to stay connected with those who might be having trouble with depression or suicidal ideation – now more than ever.
If your friend prefers communicating with you on social media, you can be there for them in that way, but also make sure you pick up the phone to connect with them on a deeper level as well. Figure out how often the person could benefit from a check-in, and try your best to stick to that schedule. Also, when on the phone or a video chat, make sure you’re fully present with the person and not trying to do something else at the same time. Multitasking can make the other person feel ignored.
4. Help them get help.
Connect the person to other resources that can help them. Refer them to a therapist, provide the number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline* or Crisis Text Line, or encourage them to speak to a parent or another trusted adult. Most therapists are using tele-health during COVID-19, so they’re ready. And your friend doesn’t have to leave the house to access quality mental health treatment. If their situation is urgent, encourage them to consider a residential treatment center, where they receive 24/7 monitoring and support in a safe, supportive environment.
5. Follow up.
After you connect, tell your friend when you’ll follow up with them. Giving them a time and date that you’ll call them next shows that you genuinely care about them and aren’t just checking in to do your duty. It also gives your friend something to look forward to, which can help reduce their feelings of isolation and/or depression. The most important part of following up is actually doing it: if you tell them you’re going to follow up, make sure you follow up.
If you think a friend or loved one is in imminent danger of harming themselves, don’t wait. This goes for you, too: act immediately. Call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).