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Unusual trends regarding suicide prevention in Utah in the age of COVID-19

A different group of people is contacting Utah's suicide prevention hotlines. They are young, and haven't experienced social isolation before now. (Stock photo, KSL)

SALT LAKE CITY — Advocacy groups are beefing up mental health care resources to help with suicide prevention during the stress of COVID-19.  Still, there appear to be some surprising trends when it comes to actual suicides.

It appears, at first glance, that those numbers have gone down.

Enough suicide prevention resources?

Just a month ago, ABC News reported calls to the Disaster Distress Helpline (offered by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) spiked nearly 900 percent compared to last year.  Some federal officials wondered if the country had enough resources to handle a growing mental health crisis.

The stress that comes from isolation and economic hardship is very real, according to NAMI Utah Executive Director Rob Wesemann, and he says younger people are feeling the sting more than older people.

“We seem to hear the stories about isolation more from young people,” he said.  “It has been a real struggle with this decrease in socialization and social activity.  In some folks, we’re seeing an increase in anxiety.”

Calls to Utah suicide prevention helplines are up

Wesemann says calls to Utah’s helplines are also way up.  However, according to initial information, they’re optimistic suicides in Utah will be down in March and April compared to last year. Those numbers have to be confirmed.

Wesemann believes there are two different camps dealing with the hardship from COVID-19.  Those who already have a chronic mental illness, and those people who are dealing with acute stress from this particular problem.  In a way, he says the people who have a pre-existing mental health problem were better equipped to handle the situation.

“They’ve got a counselor.  They’re taking medications.  They’re doing other things.  What we’ve been concerned about is making sure that those individuals continue with those support systems,” he says.

For many, helpless or hopeless feelings are new

People who haven’t experienced a chronic mental illness are dealing with a kind of pressure that they’ve never felt before.  But Wesemann says counselors are doing an excellent job of talking them through their issues.

“Sometimes, just that call is enough.  Sometimes, you need more than that,” he said.

Groups like The Utah Pride Center are ramping up their counseling and suicide prevention resources.  They say LGBT youth in rural areas are especially vulnerable to suicide.

A resources page with a lot of information and contact numbers can be found here.

Anyone dealing with suicidal thoughts is urged to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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