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How to help when someone you know has mental health issues tied to pandemic

by Emily Mendez | Contributor
August 24, 2020

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There's some jarring news out of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) this summer. COVID-19 has had a massive effect on mental health. According to recently released data, nearly 11% of participants had considered suicide in the summer of 2020. That is nearly double the rate that was reported in a similar study from 2018.

This news may be a call to action to anyone in the position to recognize and address the signs and symptoms of elevated anxiety and deteriorating mental health in those around them.

Take a moment to learn about who is at risk, how to recognize the warning signs and how to access resources that could potentially save a life.

Who is at higher risk of suicide during COVID-19?

Essential workers, people of color and caregivers of older adults are at a notably higher risk, according to CDC data.

Here is a breakdown of the data by group:

  • Unpaid adult caregivers – 30%
  • Young adults ages 18 to 25 – 25%
  • Hispanic participants – 18%
  • Black respondents – 15%

This goes to show that the COVID-19 has impacted the mental health of people from all walks of life. However, those who were already struggling with mental health may feel overwhelmed by both fear of the illness and worry over broader societal issues.

Another group — not surveyed in this particular study — but at increased risk are older adults. "It is expected that in the post-pandemic months, there will be a surge in various mental health issues, and a significant proportion of them might be the elderly," say researchers exploring the psychosocial impact of COVID-19 on elderly populations as they are forced to deal with increased isolation, altered care plans and reduced wellness visits. The fear that comes with being in the demographic with the highest COVID-19 mortality rates also can create anxiety, panic and depression among senior citizens.

Stress, fear and suicide

It’s no surprise that the global pandemic has led to increased rates of stress and anxiety. Certain mental health conditions, including anxiety disorders, are related to a higher risk of suicide.

One thing that can help is understanding how to recognize symptoms of clinical depression and anxiety in a loved one or yourself and knowing how, when and where to get help.

What are the signs of elevated anxiety?

Ultimately, there is both an individual and widespread cry for help being delivered by people suffering from anxiety and despair during COVID-19. Mental-health and medical professionals are receiving this call at a time when they are already overwhelmed by the disorientation created by COVID-19 throughout the medical community. While government agencies and medical professionals play vital roles in connecting patients and at-risk people with access to care and resources, all of us can recognize warning signs.

People with elevated anxiety can demonstrate many physical and cognitive symptoms. In someone under extreme psychological pressure due to COVID-19, the overwhelming anxiety may manifest in the form of a panic attack. Here's a look at signs of elevated anxiety:

  • Demonstrating intense, excessive and persistent worry, fear and doom.
  • Sudden intense fear or terror (panic attack).
  • Difficulty participating in daily activities.
  • Feelings that are out of proportion based on the danger level of a situation.
  • Avoidance of things that trigger anxiety.
  • Demonstrating physical symptoms like rapid breathing (hyperventilation), increased heart rate, sweating and trembling.
  • Complaining of gastrointestinal (GI) problems.
  • Complaining about not being able to fall asleep or stay asleep.

It's not always easy to spot symptoms of elevated anxiety because many people become masters at "masking" what they're going through. For some, the fear of burdening others with their problems makes them want to hide what is happening. Others are too ashamed to discuss what they are experiencing.

Detecting anxiety and other mental health issues in the elderly can be especially tricky because older adults may attempt to disguise cognitive decline or mental-health issues because they fear that they will lose their independence. Seniors will often disengage from loved ones to avoid "being detected" when they know that something is off.

How to help a person struggling with anxiety during COVID-19

Graphic of woman stressed about current events

Unfortunately, social distancing makes it difficult to “reach out” to friends and family using conventional methods. However, there are still ways to provide support and encouragement. Here's a quick rundown of suggestions to make when someone is in a state of elevated anxiety:

  • Suggest that the person seek counseling using telehealth services.
  • Recommend that the person avoids news reports related to COVID-19 and other stressors for a while.
  • Encourage the person to practice self-care through healthy eating and exercise.
  • Reach out to the person regularly using socially distanced methods like socializing outside or using video calls.

You may have concerns that the situation is more than you can handle alone. These basic techniques may not be effective or appropriate if a person has expressed suicidal thoughts. Next, take a look at some must-know resources for crisis situations.

What to do when someone talks about suicide or self-harm

In these times of growing concerns over mental health, we all need to have a strategy for what to do when someone discusses having suicidal thoughts or thoughts of self-harm. First, always assume that a person is telling the truth when they talk about suicidal thoughts. It is a mistake to dismiss someone's words as being “dramatic” or “trying to get attention.” You should instead treat this as a life-or-death situation. Many public resources can help you answer a cry for help if you believe that someone is suicidal. Here is a checklist of resources to help someone going through a severe mental health crisis:

  • If someone threatens suicide or reveals they are having suicidal thoughts: Call 911.
  • If someone is experiencing intense anxiety related to COVID-19: Call the Disaster Distress Helpline (1-800-985-5990) for immediate crisis counseling.
  • If you have concerns that someone may be suicidal: Refer them to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
  • If you know a veteran in crisis: Refer them to the Veteran’s Crisis Line Call (1-800-273-8255) or text line (#8388255).

While most people with anxiety are not suicidal, having resources on hand could potentially save a life. Even non-suicidal people suffering from elevated anxiety can benefit from free, accessible resources for talking with professionals if they are in crisis.

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