Coronavirus is a mental health issue as well as physical health issue – this much we know by now. The tough circumstances of lockdown, the loss of friends and family to the virus and the impact of long Covid have all exacerbated stress, isolation, anxiety, depression and mental health issues in ways we could not have prepared for.
Mental health experts rightly caution against drawing simple lines of cause and effect when it comes to suicide ideation, because the issue is hugely complex and, as the Samaritans charity explains, “most of the time there is no single event or factor that leads someone to take their own life”.
Caroline Harper, specialist nurse adviser and mental health lead at Bupa, says: “Suicidal thoughts and feelings can affect anyone at any time, regardless of your age, gender, or background. There’s no ‘one reason’ that causes you to experience these thoughts – any changes to your life can affect how you feel, and these can happen to anyone.”
However, Harper says that there is no getting away from the fact this has been a tough period for our mental health.
In 2019, suicide rates in the UK hit a two decade high, with men three times more likely to take their life than women, according to ONS data. Since those numbers were reported, depression has peaked in the population with almost one in five (19.2%) UK adults experiencing some form of depression during the Covid crisis – doubling from around 1 in 10 (9.7%) pre-pandemic.
“No one should suffer in silence or think that nothing can be done,” says Harper. “If you or a loved one are struggling with your mental health, it’s important to seek medical help at the right time. From listening without judgement to focusing on small gestures, there’s lots of ways to help a friend who may be feeling suicidal.
It’s no coincidence that this year’s World Suicide Prevention Day, on Friday September 10, focuses on a theme of “hope through action”.
Rory O’Connor, professor of health psychology at the University of Glasgow says: “Creating hope is a benefit at any level, whether individual, an organisation, as a community, as a government – we can do things to create hope. And that hope on an individual level could just be you picking up the phone or sending a message to a friend or family member.”
Prof O’Connor believes that dates like World Suicide Prevention Day are important to acknowledge “no matter where we are in the world” and that the best way to challenge suicide is talking about it.
“One of the barriers people face to seeking help are fierce feelings of shame which hold them back,” says O’Connor, who appeared on the My Possible Self podcast for World Suicide Prevention Day.
“By increasing public conversation, we can change the narrative around suicide and make it easier for those suffering to come forward and receive the support they need.”
But this alone isn’t enough. “There must be services and support out there, readily available and tailored to people’s needs,” he adds. “During this pandemic, there have been many instances for waiting lists for longer than 12-months for children and adolescents getting the support they require.”
We can’t predict who will die by suicide – partly because, in statistical terms, it’s still a rare event, says Prof O’Connor. But we can be alert to behaviours.
Dr Earim Chaudy, medical director of men’s health platform Manual suggests being aware of the following signs in someone suffering from depression, or other mental health conditions, that suggest they could be vulnerable.
Withdrawal is a strong indicator that someone could be depressed. People suffering from depression can lose interest in things that once excited them, and avoid friends and family, choosing to be alone. You might find it more difficult to get hold of them as they could be avoiding texts, phone calls, social occasions. If you notice a friend, family member or work colleague becoming withdrawn, offer your support. Ask them if they want to talk, or even send a text or phone call to let them know that you are there for them.
Changes in personality
Someone suffering from depression may not be acting like themselves. This can be through their actions or behaviours, such as cancelling plans, or having little interest in doing things they used to enjoy.
Their speech and communication may also change – you might notice they are speaking quicker or more slowly than usual, finding it difficult to focus on everyday tasks. They might also become moody, or more easily irritated. Make sure to take notice of their personality changes, and offer a support system if you think they’re struggling.
Sometimes people with depression can become reckless because they might no longer value their life. This can include reckless driving, abusing drugs or alcohol, engaging in unsafe sex, and not eating a proper diet.
If you notice any of these signs, it’s important to raise your concerns with the person as they might be in need of support. If you think their life could be in serious danger, make sure to get emergency help by calling 999.
Changes in sleeping patterns
If you notice someone suffering from insomnia, this could be a sign of depression. Those who struggle to sleep can sometimes have problems switching off, staying up for hours and then feeling fatigued the next day.
On the other hand, the person might be oversleeping, they might stay in bed throughout the day and not leave.If you notice these kinds of changes, ask them if there’s any reason this might be happening and offer support – you can suggest they visit their GP to seek professional help.
Threatening or talking about suicide
Many people who think about suicide will sometimes give a warning sign before they do so. This could be in the form of a joke, or even a threat. While not everyone who talks about suicide will follow through with it, it’s important to question it. Every threat of suicide must be taken seriously.
If you notice threats from a friend or family member regarding suicide, make sure you question them, even if you think they are joking.
Help and support:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).
- CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably) offer a helpline open 5pm-midnight, 365 days a year, on 0800 58 58 58, and a webchat service.
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email email@example.com
- Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0808 801 0525 (Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on rethink.org.