Pandemic bringing on ‘deaths of despair’

Staff Writer
Published: 5/17/2020 12:30:36 PM
Modified: 5/17/2020 12:30:35 PM

Experts are predicting the novel coronavirus will have claimed roughly 135,000 American lives by August.

But this alarming figure does not include what have been coined “deaths of despair,” those brought on by alcohol, drug overdose and suicide. Depression and anxiety created or heightened by social isolation, fear, unemployment, an uncertain future or deaths of loved ones could lead to the loss of an additional 154,000 lives, according to a study released by the Well Being Trust and the American Academy of Family Physicians. The new study stated the “deaths by despair” tally could be as low as 27,644, with 75,000 being the most likely scenario.

Reports of local cases vary. Liz Anderson, program director of ServiceNet’s Greenfield outpatient clinic, said her clients don’t seem to indicate any higher risks of suicide, though her colleagues have seen the exact opposite.

“It’s a really stressful time right now,” Anderson said Monday.

She said an individual’s main risk factors for suicide pertain to loss — of loved ones, employment, relationships, money, etc. She also said mental health issues can be exacerbated by gloomy pandemic forecasts and social isolation created by public safety measures, with many people going weeks or months without seeing another person. Another major stressor, Anderson said, is a sense of hopelessness — some cannot fathom a proverbial light at the end of the metaphorical tunnel.

Anderson said warning signs to look for include increased drug or alcohol usage or consistent talk of death, drawing up a final will and testament, or giving away possessions. Anderson recommends regularly checking in with the people in your life, especially if they are particularly isolated. She also said not everyone who commits suicide is depressed.

“When someone tells you they are suicidal, believe them,” she said, adding that the vast majority of people who make this claim are not merely seeking attention. “We need to just be vigilant with everybody.”

Anderson said people can call 413-584-6855 or 413-774-5411 if they need mental health services. People can also dial 911 if they feel they or someone else is an immediate danger to themselves or others.

Greenfield Deputy Police Chief Mark Williams said he has not seen an increase in suicides, though his department is bracing for it. He said the department has experienced a steady stream of mental health-related calls and overdoses, and the seriousness of these mental health crises has seemed elevated.

“In my opinion, I do worry that we will see an increase as time goes on here and (people’s) stressors continue,” Williams said.

He said people should not be afraid to ask for help and he hopes the police will be viewed as a resource.

Likewise, Orange Police Chief James Sullivan said he is fearful about a potential spike in suicides. He said his department is “keeping an eye on it.”

“It’s a big concern of mine,” he said. “It’s just hard to get these people access to the services they need.”

Athol Police Chief Craig Lundgren, who was previously the top cop in Orange, said there has been no increase in suicides or attempted suicides in his town and he hopes the situation stays that way. He said social isolation is starting to fray the public’s nerves and the potential threat of unemployment probably weighs heavy on people’s minds.

Amy Timmins, ServiceNet’s vice president of community relations, said the nonprofit human service agency has seen a spike in the number of people interested in obtaining mental health services, and the requests are coming in “faster than we have therapists to fill the need.”

“People have been put on a waiting list, (and) the waiting period is longer than we would like it to be,” she said.

Timmins said there seems to be a direct correlation between the increase in volume and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We can all reach out to people we know might be alone,” she said.

Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.

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