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Stay Connected: Social Isolation Is a Risk Factor for Suicide

Today's Medicine

Published: Sept. 9, 2020

 

There’s been widespread concern that the COVID-19 pandemic is leading to a mental health crisis. Depression and anxiety tend to be fed by uncertainty, isolation, stressors and loss. All of these factors have been more prevalent during the pandemic. Given that depression is the No. 1 cause of suicide, this increase in depression and anxiety has led to concerns.

Risk factors that lead to suicide include:

  • Mood disorders
  • Drug and alcohol abuse
  • History of trauma or abuse
  • Job or financial loss
  • Prior suicide attempts or family history of suicide
  • Access to lethal means
  • Chronic disease
  • Lack of access to behavioral health care
  • Social isolation

You may have heard quite a bit about that last one – social isolation – throughout the pandemic, especially early on. And despite some loosening of restrictions, many people’s lives look similar to how they did in March and April. They may be working from home, and their kids may be learning remotely, too. Large gatherings are limited, and when they do get together with people, they must social distance and follow precautions. Many seniors and those in nursing homes – or anyone at risk for serious illness from COVID-19 – are still taking extra precautions and isolating from their family and friends.  

Reducing contact with other people is one of the best ways to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. But when someone becomes socially isolated, it’s not only harmful to their mental and physical health – it’s also much harder for a loved one to catch the warning signs of suicide. With the pandemic continuing, let’s revisit social isolation and how we can lessen this suicide risk factor for ourselves and our loved ones.

 

The need to connect

Social isolation and loneliness are as harmful to your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and are twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity. Loneliness is linked to adverse health consequences such as depression, sleep disturbances, cognitive decline and impaired immunity. As mentioned, social isolation is a major risk factor for suicide. The feeling of not belonging or not feeling connected to other people can be detrimentally powerful. 

Being alone, with little interaction with others, wears on your mental well-being. It can lead to spending too much time in your own head, ruminating over past situations or worrying about what’s going on in the world around you. 

People need to feel connected. We need to have a sense of belonging. When the pandemic hit, our spaces of connection lessened, and we found ourselves more secluded at home. For many, there was a loss of belongingness. And as time has gone on, that loss has led to feelings of depression and anxiety. 

 

How to combat social isolation

Social isolation and loneliness can be fought – social distancing doesn’t have to mean isolating yourself. Be intentional about being connected to others, and lean on technology to stay in touch with your loved ones on the phone or video chat. 

Be creative in maintaining contact with each other and the world. While not everything you’ll do carries zero risk, be mindful about lowering your risk. You can:

  • Gather in the backyard or driveway, sitting at least 6 feet apart and masking when not drinking or eating
  • Host a chalk coloring contest in your driveway or play yard games
  • Post a joke of the day on a sign in your yard for neighbors to enjoy
  • Go for a walk and make an effort to smile and greet passersby
  • Learn a new skill or hobby
  • Attend virtual events online, such as concerts, museum tours, church services and classes 
  • Create and send cards and notes just to let someone know you’re thinking of them
  • Virtually volunteer – as the pandemic has gone on, many organizations have more online opportunities 
  • Try the patio of a restaurant you miss – call ahead to see if the manager will work with you on making sure you’re appropriately distanced from other tables
  • Host a virtual happy hour with friends who live all over the country

Combat the feelings of isolation by connecting. If you’re worried about a loved one, give them a call or send them a text. Help prevent your friends and family – especially older loved ones – from becoming socially isolated themselves.

 

Seek help

Even though you can take steps to prevent social isolation, no one has to get through this time alone. 

If you’re having suicidal thoughts or worried about a loved one, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 (TALK). The free, confidential phone line is available 24/7 to connect you with a trained counselor. You can also chat with someone online.  

The Methodist Emotional Support Line is a valuable community resource. The free, confidential service is available Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and is staffed by licensed counselors from the Methodist Hospital Community Counseling Program. The counselors can assist callers who may be experiencing feelings such as:

  • Fear
  • Anxiety
  • Sadness
  • Depression

If you or a loved one are experiencing these feelings, call (402) 815-8255 (TALK) to speak to a counselor. Counselors can help callers by answering questions, addressing concerns, scheduling counseling appointments for additional care and providing referrals to community resources.

 

More resources

Amy Monzingo

About the Author:

Amy Monzingo, MS, NCC, LMHP, LMHC, is a counselor at Best Care EAP. She enjoys helping people by offering tools and techniques to handle situations they are struggling with.

See More Articles by Amy Monzingo