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Suicide concerns emerge during pandemic

High Point Enterprise - 9/27/2020

Sep. 27--HIGH POINT -- It's yet another shadow on people's health cast by the coronavirus pandemic.

During Suicide Prevention Month in September, health care professionals have highlighted the risk of depression or extreme anxiety that's prompted men, women and children to contemplate taking their own life.

Research so far during the pandemic hasn't specified how much the fear and risk surrounding COVID-19 has impacted suicide attempts, said Dr. Terry Kolb, a regional medical director with Novant Health out of Winston-Salem. But the worrisome ingredients are present to make health care professionals take note, Kolb told The High Point Enterprise.

"As far as detailed reports on the actual influence on suicide, the data is not well-defined at this time," Kolb said. "However, what is well-defined is the social anxiety that has been generated around the COVID pandemic."

The threat of the pandemic on the mental health of one group -- children and teenagers -- came up as a point of discussion at last week's Guilford County Board of Education meeting.

Republican board member Pat Tillman said the risks of the pandemic and worries about what's happening in society weigh on young people, especially middle school and high school students.

Outside of the risk of suicide, mental health strains disrupt the ability of students to learn, Tillman told his fellow school board members.

Kolb said one sign of the insidious impact of the COVID-19 threat on young people is the fear of children becoming sick with any illness.

"It's painful from a physician's viewpoint, because a child doesn't need to be afraid from a worry about what is going on," he said.

Children and adolescents become fixated on fear when they contract -- or if a close, young friend contracts -- something as routine as the common cold.

"We need to reassure them as adults and parents," Kolb said.

For health care professionals, Kolb told The Enterprise, the mental health strain from the pandemic complicates treating patients for physical ailments and conditions.

"It makes treating the underlying illness very difficult," he said.

Anxiety about COVID-19 has made length of stays in hospitals longer for some patients, Kolb said.

"Because anxiety is something that's not a tangible disease process, it's very hard for society to put its finger on what is that anxiety," the doctor said. "Sometimes people view anxiety as a weakness."

Signs that someone may be contemplating suicide include a person withdrawing from loved ones or friends or retreating from normal behavior.

"They become out of touch with where they usually come from," Kolb said. "They may pull back from people they usually lean on, or start making plans they usually don't make. These are behaviors you should really pay attention to in this time of heightened anxiety."

Mental health strains and the risk of suicide can affect people both who contract the virus and others who worry about getting an infection of COVID-19.

"This is more the fear of COVID than it is actually having COVID," Kolb said.

The risk of suicide during the pandemic was addressed in a study this past May that highlighted "deaths from despair." The study found that between 27,000 deaths to 154,000 deaths could be linked to suicide, chronic unemployment and drug and alcohol abuse during the COVID-19 threat, depending on the length and severity of the pandemic.

"We can prevent these deaths by taking meaningful and comprehensive action as a nation," according to the study done by the Well Being Trust and the Robert Graham Center.

Isolation of people to keep the virus from spreading also has implications for mental stress, the researchers found, emphasizing the importance of coming up with innovative ways to stay connected.

Communicating regularly and thoughtfully with someone suffering mental health strains during the pandemic represents the best approach to preventing someone with worries from harming themselves, Kolb said.

"Even if you get COVID, let's talk through what we can expect," he said. "If people internalize this and they are already anxious, that just sits in there and eats at them emotionally." -- 336-888-3528 -- @HPEpaul

Helpline contact

If you are in a crisis and contemplating suicide, or know someone who is, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Information also is available at the website


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