The Good News is the social isolation we have been suffering through for almost three months has been effective in slowing the COVID virus pandemic. It has still been bad enough, but without the isolation efforts, it would have been fourteen times worse. That is good.
The bad news is, this pandemic is not over; the virus is still around. In some places, cases are rising rapidly, experiencing a second spike after the loosening of restrictions on the Memorial Day weekend. But after nearly three months, we are feeling the stress of the isolation efforts. The enforced family time is increasing domestic abuse; the economic damage has been huge for some families, unemployment has soared to near 20%, and has caused the country to enter a recession as of February.
Anxiety in the community adds to individual stress. How do we measure the cumulative impact of the endless news cycles flooding us with images of COVID pandemic destruction, then with the repeated videos of police brutality and racism? The pressure of being isolated from others, not allowed to visit family and friends in nursing homes, of economic pressure, the strain of the pandemic and the social unrest is taking its toll.
Some of us entered into the pandemic with a full load of stress already—job, mental health, physical health, family dysfunction, etc. our plates were already overflowing with problems. Add fears of catching the disease or giving it to an older loved one, the stress of losing a job, and being stuck inside for months now, and then the protests, was too much for an already overburdened psyche. Some are breaking.
For some of us, the stresses mount until we reach our limit and we have more than we can carry. We break from the pain. When we have reached that limit and break, something has to happen to remove the stress or remove ourselves from it. For some, that break means resorting to drugs, self-destructive behavior. For others, when the limit is reached, the only answer we can see is to remove ourselves from the unbearable pain. Suicide is the last coping strategy we have.
Isolation makes depression and hopelessness more of a threat to do self-harm.
Access to mental health crisis workers helps, but many of these response units are inactive due to the pandemic.
Mental health inpatient treatment is absolutely lifesaving for some patients on the edge, but mental health, especially in Iowa, has been grossly underfunded. Before this current pandemic season there was a critical shortage of mental health hospital beds; the pandemic has increased need substantially.
What can you do to protect yourself from falling victim of suicide?
Remember that you are a beloved child of God and that God never abandons us, not matter what happens.
• Regular exercise. Walking is the absolute best- it is rhythmic, can be tailored to your own level of fitness, requires no special equipment or training. Three to four times a week at least; daily to your level of fitness is fine.
• Keep a routine. Meal time, bedtime, routine. Stay busy. Sitting in the couch glued to Facebook amplifies depression and isolation.
• Keep in touch. Use social media, your phone, email, etc. reach out to friends, relatives, talk to people. just because you are physically isolated does not mean you have to be completely alone.
• Moderate the use of alcohol or other drugs.
• Reach out for help when depressed. The “Black Dog” of depression tells us no one can help, no one cares. That is a deadly lie. If you have thoughts of self-harm, call for help. Now.
• Lower the Lethality. If you are having ongoing depression, consider asking a friend to keep your weapons for a time. Clean your house of firearms, knives, etc. Reduce the amount of medications in your home to only what you will use in a few days’ time. Ask a friend to keep the rest for you safely and refill as needed.
What can you do right now, as a Pastor, as a friend, to reduce the danger of suicide in your congregation and among your friends?
• Pray. Trust God. For many ministries, you and I are the hands and heart and hugs of God; but God remains steadfastly in love with all creation. Prayer is to be accompanied by our actions, but we begin with prayer. Pray for our own strength, and also pray for our fellow church members, friends, family, and neighbors. Know to the core of your soul that God’s love does not desert you, no matter how depressed and hopeless you may feel. In deepest distress, we seek to feel God’s loving presence, and it comes.
• Stay in touch. We can’t visit in person, but phones, email, social media all offer options for keeping in contact. Use them all.
• Organize. If your church isn’t already actively organized to keep in touch with ALL of its members, start that right now. By whatever means, sort your members into groups of five to eight families. Designate one or two elders or leaders to contact every one of these groups regularly.
• Encourage your members to contact each other at least once a week.
o When you identify an individual feeling particularly stressed or depressed, focus more of your attention on that one who needs the extra attention.
o Ask if they are having thoughts of self-harm or suicide.
o Get help if the answer is ‘yes’ get your friend to professional help right away. Call 911.
There are provisions in most states to protect people who are a danger to themselves. Your friend may be mad at your for calling the police, but at least they will be alive to be mad at you.
• Train Yourself “Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training,” an evidence based, online interactive training. The initial basic course is $20. https://www.livingworks.net/asist
God’s steadfast love brought about all of creation. God’s steadfast love for humanity is revealed in the incarnation of Christ Jesus, who loved us enough to die for us. God’s love continues just as strongly now. Because of God’s love for you, choose life. Because of God’s love for your neighbor, be the helper who just might save another life from suicide.