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Americans are experiencing a historical moment unlike any other in most of our lifetimes -- a global pandemic, a resulting economic downturn and unemployment, and protests over police brutality and racial injustice.During this time, our mental health is under unprecedented strain.In this special series, WMRA explores access to mental health services, and how therapies have adjusted to the current crises. Over the summer, we'll examine telehealth, addiction services, mental health for children, suicide prevention, access to therapies for people of color, and new ways of treating mental health issues, depression and anxiety.This special series is made possible in part by a grant from Mr. and Mrs. Frazier and the, "Austin Frazier Memorial of The Community Foundation of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County," and from WMRA's News and Information Fund.Mental Health Resources: Community Services BoardsHarrisonburg-Rockingham CSBRegion 10 CSBNorthwestern CSBValley CSBRockbridge Area CSBSuicide PreventionVDH suicide prevention siteNational Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) En Espagnol: 1-800-799-4889 Deaf / Hearing Impaired: 1-800-799-4889 Crisis Text Line: Text TALK to 741741

Suicidal Thoughts, Mental Health And The Pandemic

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National Institute of Mental Health
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The social isolation, economic instability, and concerns about wellbeing resulting from the pandemic have spurred an increase in symptoms of depression and anxiety in many of us. And with those mental health symptoms comes an increase in suicidal thoughts for some.  That worries local mental healthcare providers and trainers. In the next part of our Mental Health Matters series, WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please tell a friend or loved one, and contact available resources, such as your local Community Services Board, hospital, or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 1-800-273-8255.

Rates of death by suicide have been on the rise in Virginia since 2003, when the CDC's National Violent Death Reporting System database begins for the state. And while we won't know the pandemic's impact on the number of suicides for at least a year and half, mental healthcare professionals are concerned.

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Credit CSPC
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Jane Wiggins is the director of the Campus Suicide Prevention Center of Virginia

JANE WIGGINS: It's been something that's been worrisome to many of us for a while now. And COVID just took it over the top, because we just have never experienced anything like this.

Jane Wiggins is the director of the Campus Suicide Prevention Center of Virginia.

WIGGINS: … knowing the level of convergence of risk factors that so many things that we know are hard on people are coming together all at once, like financial insecurity, and loss of health, loss of a whole range of different kinds of supports, loss of connectedness, which is huge. Connectedness is a hugely protective factor.

Wiggins coordinates suicide prevention and intervention trainings for clinicians, college staff, and laypeople all over the state. They're gearing up to offer socially distanced, in-person trainings again in August, but have still been able to offer a lot of their workshops via video conference. One, called a "gatekeeper" or "natural helper" training, is meant to...

WIGGINS: … help them figure out what it is they really want, which usually is not death. What people really want is usually something else, like, you know, escape or relief, a change … It's more about finding relief from overwhelming distress than it is about truly wanting death.

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Credit Janice Lewis
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James Madison University is one of the institutions that offers trainings from the Center as well as their own counseling staff. Since 2005, staff counselor Janice Lewis says their counseling center has seen more than a 900% increase in students making crisis appointments.

JANICE LEWIS: We realize that on average, 30% of the about 2,000 students who visit our center each year report that they've experienced some suicidal thoughts in their lifetime … we definitely want to encourage that recognizing mental health needs and seeking support when that is needed is a sign of strength.

JMU has been able to offer expanded mental health services throughout the pandemic, such as telehealth emergency support and counseling services.  The Harrisonburg City Public Schools have also stayed in contact with their students during the pandemic, with support staff reaching out to kids and families.

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Credit Randi B. Hagi
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April Howard is the chief officer for student support for Harrisonburg City Public Schools.

APRIL HOWARD: When we think about suicide prevention in the schools, we really think of the overall focus on mental health, wellbeing.

April Howard is the division's chief officer for student support. Her team regularly partners with the McNulty Center for Children and Families, a part of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Community Services Board, to provide mental health services to city students.

HOWARD: What the counselors are providing is more of a screening, to make that determination of what additional support may be needed or intervention.

One thing that's unique to working with adolescent and high school students is that they may not want a parent to know when they're in a crisis. But if they are at risk of harming themselves, school and mental health counselors may have to bring in other professionals.

HOWARD: As a counselor, they let a student know of those exceptions, that when there's potential harm to themselves or to others that they have to let someone else know.

Social worker Robin Breeden is experienced in speaking with youth and adults with suicidal ideation through her work on the psychiatric evaluation team in Sentara RMH's emergency room. She's also a life recovery coordinator at the hospital's behavioral health outpatient center.

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Credit Randi B. Hagi
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ROBIN BREEDEN: If I know that they have a history of suicidal ideation, we will always address that. 'How is your suicide thoughts today?' So we talk about it. We don't, we're just up front about it. We don't kinda pretend it's not there … I honor it, and then we go see what are the coping skills that we've developed that we're going to utilize to help us through it?

The outpatient center offers socially distanced, in-person and telehealth services including group counseling, individual therapy, recovery programs, and partial hospitalization when necessary.

Another organization, On Our Own of Charlottesville, acted quickly this spring to ensure their members could access their peer support services. Director Erin Tucker said they purchased laptops or smartphones and six months of internet for about 15 of their members who wouldn't have had access otherwise. The staff follows up.

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Credit Erin Tucker
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Erin Tucker is director of On Our Own of Charlottesville.

ERIN TUCKER: They call, they text, they email, they make some type of contact with our members every single day, and then they report back to myself and my program manager … That way we can see if there are any holes, like somebody that's not responding.

In our next installment on suicide prevention, we'll hear from Erin Tucker and Charlottesville resident Crissanne Raymond about Crissanne's son Luke, who died by suicide earlier this summer, and is dearly missed. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please tell a friend or loved one, and contact available resources, such as your local Community Services Board, hospital, or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, at 1-800-273-8255.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.
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