COVID-19 takes toll on mental health; Suicide rate doubles
Special to the Sierra Sun
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — While the pandemic has had an obvious impact on everyone’s lives, experts are now seeing the less obvious toll the coronavirus and shelter-in-place orders are having on mental health.
Local psychologist Matt Wong has spent a lot of time lately thinking about the psychological impact of COVID-19.
“We have a bunch of worry,” Wong said, adding that between the news, Facebook and conversations with the people around us, it’s hard to escape.
Lisa Utzig Schafer, program coordinator for El Dorado County Suicide Prevention Network described the stress everyone is experiencing as an “umbrella of hopelessness.”
“We have a lot of things to feel hopeless about,” Schafer said. “There’s the aftermath of loss, people losing their jobs, financial hardships, isolation, change in routine, the list goes on and on.”
Schafer said in El Dorado County suicides have doubled since the pandemic started, compared to this time last year.
Wong said in South Lake Tahoe, single white males over 60 who are isolated and have access to firearms are the most likely to take their own lives.
It’s easy to miss the signs in other people these days. Some of the normal signs you’d look for, Schafer said, include someone becoming more reclusive, not engaging in the same activities they normally enjoy and sleeping a lot. But with people stuck at home, those signs are less obvious.
Schafer bristles at the phrase “socially distanced,” saying that she would rather it was “physically distanced,” because it’s more important than ever to be social.
“We should be checking on each more than ever,” Schafer said.
She said the three things she teaches people are not to miss, dismiss or avoid.
Some signs people can look for are talk of losing hope, or if someone is angry and easily irritated or if they suddenly become very happy and are giving things away.
With the free time people now have on their hands, Wong encourages people to use the time to socialize.
“Every time you have the impulse to go on social media, use that time instead to set a Zoom call or make a phone call,” Wong said.
Another thing to keep in mind is even people who didn’t have difficulties with mental health or had their mental health under control before this happened could be struggling.
“It’s important to not minimize your own experience,” Schafer said. “There are still changes happening that you didn’t choose.”
Even if a person is healthy or was able to keep working, it’s okay for them to not be okay with what’s happening in the world.
However, it’s still important to not dismiss someone else’s experience because you yourself have a lot going on.
The shelter-in-place has a big impact on students, who have had their routines changed and aren’t able to socialize during a time developmentally when it’s important for them too.
Schafer, who does suicide prevention education at local schools said she’s heard from some parents who say they want their students to go back to school in the fall because they’re worried about their mental states.
There is a trade-off between staying safe from the virus and keeping mental health in check and Wong said that’s a decision everyone has to make on their own, weighing their health and the health of the people around them.
Both Wong and Schafer admit that South Lake Tahoe is low on services. Schafer recommends telehealth, while she would prefer people get face-to-face care, it’s better than nothing.
Wong and Schafer are both working to expand suicide prevention training and education in South Lake Tahoe.
If you or someone you know needs help call National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) (English) or 1-888-628-9454 (Español).
El Dorado County Behavioral Health Division has a 24-hour crisis phone line at 530-544-2219.
Barton Health also has a list of resources at http://www.bartonhealth.org/tahoe/behavioral-health.aspx.
Laney Griffo is a Staff Writer with the Tahoe Daily Tribune, a sister publication to the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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