Suicide prevention is always a challenge for communities. But the coronavirus pandemic, coupled with the stress that often accompanies the holiday season, are exacerbating the threat for many Californians as 2020 draws to a close.
Last spring, MHSOAC Research Supervisor Ashley Mills appeared on KVIE, Sacramento’s public television station, as part of a program called “Suicide Awareness During COVID-19.” The segment will air again on KVIE this Friday (11/27) at 7:30 p.m., and the timing couldn’t be better.
California is in the midst of an ominous spike in COVID cases, leading to greater restrictions and, for many people, rising anxiety. We’re also entering the thick of the holiday season, when experts say suicidal thoughts and behaviors become a greater concern – even absent a pandemic.
During the program, Mills and two other panelists discussed a variety of factors related to suicide prevention, from the importance of recognizing warning signs to the value of crisis hot lines and the need for better data and research. When asked by program host Scott Syphax to identify the single most important fact people should know about suicide, Mills was quick to respond: preventing it is within our grasp.
“Lives can be saved from suicide,” said Mills, the principal author of MHSOAC’s strategic plan for suicide prevention, Striving for Zero. “Just like the COVID-19 pandemic is asking us to be aware and vigilant of one another and how we can keep each other safe, we very much can do that with suicide. It starts with [being alert for possible] warning signs of suicide in our loved one and then being aware of resources.”
Asked to identify some of the most common warning signs of suicide risk, Mills mentioned the following:
• Giving away possessions
• Communicating a wish to die
• Having a plan to attempt suicide
• Communicating feelings of hopelessness or feeling like there is no reason to live.
Another panelist, Dr. Alan Berman of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, added that symptoms of anxiety and agitation, sleep disturbances, financial strain, and intimate partner problems also can contribute to “a sense of hopelessness and catastrophic thinking” typical of many people who demonstrate suicidal behavior.
In many cases, such warning signs are not always obvious, even to close friends and family members. Given that, Mills noted that it’s critically important for people to feel comfortable asking key questions of those who may be in distress, such as, ‘Are you thinking about killing yourself?’ or, ‘Do you feel like you don’t want to go on living?’
“Those kinds of questions open up an invitation for the person who is suffering to express what they’re going through,” Mills said, “and we know that that in and of itself is life-saving.”
Mills went on to point out that while many people consider crisis hot lines a service exclusively for people experiencing suicidal thoughts, they also serve as a valuable resource for individuals supporting loved ones in crisis. Such hot lines can provide information about useful intervention techniques and other tips from advisers trained in suicide prevention, she said.
More than 47,000 Americans lose their lives to suicide each year. In California, older white men are most at risk, with a suicide rate as high as four times that of other residents, and rural communities also have elevated rates.
Mills said that as science uncovers more about risk factors and other dynamics that underlie suicidal behavior, there is greater reason to be hopeful.
“Research is showing that suicide can be prevented and that people can be connected to a life they feel is worth living once again,” she said. “And it’s really dependent on all of us to coordinate our efforts and make sure those types of best practices emerging through the research are being brought to scale across California.”
In addition to the rebroadcast on Nov. 27, “Suicide Awareness During COVID-19” is also available to watch online.