Opinion: In times of profound unease, crisis intervention services save lives
Social isolation, fear of the coronavirus have taken a huge toll
“There was this one teacher that I like, but school is closed. I don’t think I can get in touch with her. There is no one who can help me. I have nobody,” said a 12-year-old boy who called himself Jake.
He was quarantining with parents who shouted at him all day. He said he wanted to die.
I have lost count of how many of these conversations I have had with young people like Jake on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline online chat since schools have shuttered. Such chats were not uncommon before March 2020, but they are now coming in at a furious pace. Prior to the onset of the pandemic, suicide was already the second-leading cause of death among teenagers in the United States.
If there was ever a time to invest in mental health services, now is it.
This is not a mental health crisis confined to young people. Many adults are faring no better.
Social isolation, fear of the virus, economic instability, cabin fever and the loss of our daily routines have taken a huge toll on every member of society, in ways we have yet to fully comprehend. Things that used to ground us and connect us with others are gone or severely restricted.
A recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey indicated that 45 percent of adults in the U.S. have reported that their mental health has been adversely affected by the coronavirus.
I am the manager of EveryMind’s Crisis Prevention and Intervention Services, which oversees the 24-hour Montgomery County Hotline. We also answer calls, texts and chats through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the EveryMind Portal.
Since the start of the pandemic, we have seen a 25 percent increase in the volume of incoming calls from individuals seeking help and support.
Around 300 to 400 of the thousands of calls we receive every month are from those contemplating suicide. Our calls can last from a few minutes to a couple of hours. The rule is safety today first, no matter how long it takes.
Fortunately for the majority of the suicidal callers, our highly trained call specialists, made up of both volunteers and staff, are able to listen, support and empathize with them to mitigate the risk of suicide. We connect them to various social services when appropriate. Only in a dozen or so cases each month do we have to send intervention via emergency services or the police.
America and much of the world are going through what sociologist Émile Durkheim referred to as “anomie.” Such times of rapid change are unstable, chaotic and often rife with conflict because the norms and values that otherwise undergird our society have shifted beneath our feet. Anomic suicide is an extreme response by a person who experiences a sense of disconnection from society and a feeling of not belonging.
Even for the most mentally robust among us, this period has not been a cakewalk.
Imagine a senior neighbor who lives alone. The only human connection they had was at the diner around the corner, where they had had breakfast every morning for the past three decades. The diner is now closed. It may never open again.
They are worried about contracting the virus and have been staying at home for months. Family members stay away. For the few trips they brave to the grocery store, masks have wiped smiles off the usual friendly faces.
Now, imagine how ominous the world looks to a paranoid schizophrenic when everyone is wearing face coverings and strangers deliberately walk to the other side of the street when approaching them to maintain social distance. It all seems to confirm every suspicion and fear they have ruminated about for so long.
Both of the vulnerable individuals are more at risk than ever.
We are fortunate to live in an area that values mental health and understands its role in a functioning society.
Montgomery County just added significant resources to the Hotline. Council Member Andrew Friedson said, “When it comes to our crisis intervention hotline, missing a call or text is a matter of life and death. Montgomery County is simply too good a place to allow a cry for help in our community to go unanswered.”
As society grapples with reimagining the role of the police and locating more resources for social services, now would be a good time to bolster a tried-and-true crisis management approach. Our public safety and well-being depend upon it.
Dipika Cheung is the manager of crisis prevention and intervention services at EveryMind.
EveryMind has a 24-hour Montgomery County Hotline at 301-738-2255 (phone or text message) and a chat at https://www.every-mind.org/chat
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