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The Pandemic's Toll On Mental Health And Preventing Self-Harm

A spike in texts and calls to crisis hotlines reflects Americans' growing anxiety about the coronavirus and its impact on their lives.
A spike in texts and calls to crisis hotlines reflects Americans' growing anxiety about the coronavirus and its impact on their lives.

According to a new safety poll by Navigate360 and Zogby Strategies, 56% of 16- and 17-year-olds said they knew someone who considered hurting themselves.

We know the pandemic has made so many aspects of life harder in ways that we were just not prepared for. People are struggling: losing income, going hungry, working from home and trying to balance all of that with duties like childcare.

It's all taking a toll on mental health as the pandemic rages on.

A recent national poll by Navigate360 and Zogby Strategies asked 1,000 adults and 304 students across the U.S. — broken down by region — about self-harm and how safe they feel.

Adults feel a little safer now than they did in a similar August poll. But students are struggling more with their mental health and resources to help them cope.

WLRN talked about this topic with Dr. Scott Poland. He is a professor and directs the Suicide and Violence Prevention Office at Nova Southeastern University. He lost his father to suicide. He's spent much of his career helping schools prevent suicide.

"This pandemic, you know what? I would argue almost all of us are suffering from a low-grade depression," Poland said.

The following conversation with him has been edited for clarity and length.

WLRN: What do you think schools should be doing or doing differently, especially given that right now so many students are not physically going to school?

Well, prioritizing their mental health, increasing the number of school mental health professionals.

The mental health needs of our school students right now, and all fall, have been the greatest in modern times.

I would love to see at the middle school and high school level in particular, like self care, be built into the lessons. If some kids fall behind, if we need more summer school, whatever we need to do — we need to recognize what students are going through right now.

Teachers need to know whose dad just went in the hospital, whose grandmother passed away. We need to ask and give people permission to talk about what they have gone through, as opposed to "our lesson for today is X."

It's not all about benchmark academic things right now. It should be about mental health and relationships.

Your team has developed presentations that you use to educate all people about suicide and violence prevention. What are the key points you think everyone should understand about preventing suicide?

We need to talk about suicide more. We need to talk about what to do to help yourself or to help your friend. In fact, when you bring it up and actually give somebody who's thought about it a chance to realize, "I'm not alone, there's help available."

It's not anybody's fate or destiny.

What should you say to someone if they confide in you that they're thinking of hurting themselves?

We need to not be afraid to say the word directly. "Are you thinking of suicide? I'm here for you. You're not the first person to feel this way. I know where there is help."

We could walk them to the counseling center. If they're a coworker, we could call the employee assistance program. I would certainly go over with them, the National Helpline and crisis text line.

What are the things that aren't helpful or are even harmful to say in these situations?

Well, sometimes people cut off all the conversation by saying, "I know you'd never do that." They start trying to give them like a little pep talk.

People are uncomfortable with the topic of suicide. They're not sure what to say.

I'm really sorry to tell you that the data about suicide is typically one to two years old.

What are some signs to watch for?

Changes in behavior. So here's how conversation sometimes goes with parents:

"How do I know she's really depressed? She's a teenager. They're moody, they're irritable."

Well, mom and Dad, let me ask three questions: Is this persistent? Is it gone on for two or three weeks or more?

"Yes, it has."

Is it pervasive? Is it affecting home, school, peers, everything?

"Yeah."

Did she drop out or something that was previously pleasureful?

"A matter of fact, yes."

So there are behavioral changes. We need to survey students: what are they worried about? Ask them.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can also text text HOME to 741741 for free, 24/7 crisis counseling.

Copyright 2021 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.