suicide prevention
Mental Health

How Do We Handle the Rise in Suicides?

The facts are jarring: Suicides have jumped over the last two decades.

The reasons, experts say, are multifactoral. “Certain indicators impact individuals and the rise of suicide—the opioid epidemic; the great recession, which greatly impacted the jobs market and how people connect their identity through a job; chronic illness; diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health issues,” said Sharon Thomas, a licensed clinical counselor with MindPath Care Centers in Raleigh, North Carolina.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the numbers are up across all races, ethnicities and classes.

Though suicide seems to know no boundaries, it does appear to be affecting millennials at an alarming rate. “It seems millennials are feeling the brunt,” Thomas said, “moreso than generations X and Z. It is now the second leading cause of death for millenials. Gen X still leads in higher suicide rates, but it’s just increased so much for millennials. Adverse childhood experiences have a huge role in people’s resilience. That could be abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence, witnessing domestic violence, traumatic events, access to care. It could be socioeconomic. If you’re in a rural enviroment, it’s even more difficult to get that care.”

If there’s a silver lining to the suicide news, it’s that Black suicide rates are lower than the national average. It is a slim sliver of positive news, because our rates are rising along with the rest of the country. In 2014, the Black suicide rate was 5.62 suicides per 100,000. That number has increased to  7.2 in the most recent CDC numbers from 2018.

And though Black women attempt suicide three times more than Black men, our men are three times more likely to succeed, Thomas said.

So might a pandemic that requires isolation make these numbers worse?  

“There’s no data that says there’s been an increase in suicide since coronavirus,” Thomas said. “But there’s been an increase in folks seeking mental health care and engaging in therapeutic treatment. We’ve seen an increase in individual seeking care. We’ve seen increased anxiety, depression, psychotropic and psychopharmacology treatment.”

And Thomas said it’s more than the isolation. “Working from home is a stressor. Having to plan trips to the grocery store is a stressor. Planning to get basic care done, like dental work or a physical because of changes in hours and whatever phase your local government is in is a stressor,” she said  “And I’m finding a new phenomenon a lot of providers are noticing: In the beginning of coronavirus, the stay at home orders were seen as more of a respite. People thought, ‘I’m getting things done that I didn’t have time to do. I’m engaging with my family a little bit more.’ Now, into the sixth month, it’s becoming more evident that there’s more anxiety about leaving the house. The uprise in violence. In North Carolina, there’s an uprise in shootings. Social unrest. It’s an almost constant sense of fear, grief, and dealing with loss on top of coronavirus.”

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In fact, 2020 has been a constant state of mourning for the Black population because we have been hardest hit by coronavirus. Socioeconomic and environmental factors impact those trends, Thomas said. “Lack of access to health care, lack of preventive care, food desserts, financial insecurity. There’s not a huge, effective support system in the home or community.”

It doesn’t help that we’re well versed in trauma, loss and grief. 

“Black people hold secrets which are not helpful,” Thomas said. “It speaks to post-traumatic slave disorder—how trauma lives in black bodies, trying daily to live in a black body in this society.”

So what should folks in distress do, assuming they know they’re in distress?

According to Thomas, this is topic has been top of mind for a while. “A couple of weeks ago that was the topic of conversation: How does someone know they’re in distress?,” she said. “People are aware there’s something happening in their body. There’s muscle tension, rapid heart rate, trouble breathing, feeling queasy or butterflies in your stomach. Those are physical symptoms of a body being overwhelmed by anxiety.”

Other signs of an anxiety disorder include not wanting to get up, irritability, angry outbursts, verbal aggressiveness, wanting to be left alone and distrust. 

Of course, any of us could have a day when we’re irritable or angry. But when it becomes a pattern, that’s when you know it could be a problem. 

“You’ve stopped talking. You’re not reaching out,” Thomas said. “Most people who have a support system are made aware by that support system.”

If, for instance, you can’t get out of bed for three days, don’t want to shower or forget to eat or a multitude of behaviors not consistent with your normal behaviors or characteristics, it might be time to be proactive about your mental well-being. “There’s no way to tiptoe around suicidal thoughts,” Thomas said. “You have to address it.”

  • Reach out to someone you trust. That could be a loved one, your pastor, a teacher, your brother or your best friend. If that can’t happen, in most communities there are local managed care organizations that work with states to provide mental health care and behavioral health care to people without insurance, Thomas said. Research therapists and practices that can work with what you’re experiencing. “Not to self-diagnose, but to learn what’s available in your area,” she said.
  • Write it down. According to Thomas, journaling is great, thought it’s most effective when you’re in therapy.
  • Seek help from your spirituality. This is a huge part of how one functions, Thomas said. “Spirituality can be the source of sustainability. Prayer is simply saying out loud or coordinating those thoughts about what I need to persevere or continue in this space.”
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If, however, your church isn’t the best answer, think therapy, something many of us give the side-eye. 

“Stigma is a huge part of mental health care. Education is key. Normalization begins within a relationship that you find trust in or are easily able to engage in,” Thomas said. “Communication is key. Feeling affirmed and heard when someone says, ‘I am struggling’ is important. Having the capacity or learning the capacity to say, ‘there are things I’m concerned about and I want to get help.’”

If someone you love is seems to be overwhelmed by daily stressors, Thomas suggests these tips:

  • Talk. Ask questions. “The why is the least important; the how, when, what, where is more important,” Thomas said. “Ask, ‘How are you doing? What’s going on? Who’s hurting you? What happened yesterday? Is there something I can help you with?’ Open-ended questions get individuals to share without feeling pressured.” 
  • Educate yourself.
  • Be there. 
  • Connect them with providers and professionals. 
  • Let them know you’re available. 
  • Be consistent. 

“It’s not always that there’s a mental health diagnosis. It could just be life stressors,” Thomas said. “They could be going through a divorce or separation. They could have lost a job they really liked. Their job might not be meeting their financial needs. We need to check in on our loved ones to see how they’re doing.

“We are resilient. And we do hard things. When you feel as if you can’t do this hard thing, reach out and let someone know you need some help.”

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