On average, there are 129 suicides per day, according to the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention (AFSP). During the COVID-19 pandemic, there is concern that this number could rise as people are isolated and away from their support systems.
Jessica van der Stad, Regional Director for AFSP, said the COVID-19 pandemic has given people the opportunity to practice patience and kindness with one another.
“I’ve learned that a lot of times in meetings, if people are five to 10 minutes late, it might be because they're fixing their webcam, or working out internet issues, or finding a way to keep their dog quiet, so there’s an opportunity for us to have compassion for one another,” she said.
Van der Stad said it’s important to practice empathy because we don’t always know what people are going through day to day.
“We don't know if they typically have their children go to school, and they can work from home, and now that their children are in the house, there’s a lot of more unknowns and uncertainties,” she said. “It just gives us the opportunity to really slow down a bit, which is hard sometimes, and to really figure out what's going on and to show people a level of kindness that we might not have been able to exhibit before.”
Van der Stad said people often check on their strong friends. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, she suggests checking on everyone.
“If you're feeling good, that's an opportunity to check on other people who might be struggling,” she said. “And I think there's an opportunity here to really be honest with each other.”
As a mental health professional, Van der Stad said she often feels pressure to “know it all, figure it out, be the strong one.” But she’s had tough days just like everyone else.
“I’ve had days where it just feels impossible. The internet's not working; the dog is barking a lot more,” she said. “I have to just stop and take a break, and I think it's the first time in my career that I really began to understand how some days are just hard, and that's OK. It's OK to feel like that right now.”
While it’s appropriate to feel overwhelmed, Van der Stad said people shouldn’t isolate and cut themselves off from others.
“I think it’s so important to encourage people to reach out,” she said. “If you are struggling, ask for help. If you are having a strong day, if you're feeling good, be there for someone else, because again it’s about compassion right now.”
If you start to feel overwhelmed, Van der Stad suggests taking a moment to breathe.
“Take a deep breath in, let it out, and also figure out what you can control,” she said.
If reading the news causes you stress, Van der Stad said you can create a schedule: Read it every other day or for only 10 minutes each day. Van der Stad said another thing you can control is washing your hands and keeping your house clean.
“When this first started, encouraging people and we still are, to wash your hands. And that’s a great practice, not because not only does it keep us safe, but it’s something we can control. So much unknown is around COVID we can do things to keep ourselves safe. Physically distancing, washing our hands, maybe scrubbing those counters a little more. But again, figure out what you can control.”
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has moved its outreach programs and presentations online so that anyone can access them for free. AFSP has local chapters that have education and community programs, research and advocacy, and support for those affected by suicide.
“What was quite amazing in all of this is that last month as a division, over 300 people participated in our online programs,” Van der Stad said. “And that’s probably more people than we would have been able to reach if we had in-person events.”
Van der Stad first joined AFSP as a volunteer, and then she took a staff position a few years later.
“I became involved with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention after losing my dad to suicide. He took his life in 2008,” she said. “I was in a Starbucks not long after his death, and I saw this poster on the community board. I remember in bright yellow writing it said ‘walk to fight suicide,’ and I think it was the first time since his death that I saw the word ‘suicide’ out in public.”
After seeing this poster, she realized that she wasn’t the only one experiencing the loss of her dad. Joining AFSP was “an opportunity to really understand not only what he had been going through and the reasons, there wasn't one, that he got to the place that he thought taking his life was the only option.” AFSP also helped Van der Stad understand the risk factors she had as the daughter of someone with a mental illness. She also struggled with depression, anxiety, and stress.
COVID-19 has shown her how quickly someone’s mindset can change.
“Right before California officially went into stay at home orders, we were kind of encouraged to physically distance, things were getting canceled, and I have probably been alone for about a week and I really started to struggle,” she said. “I started to struggle with thoughts that were scary, and I had a lot of stress, a lot of anxiety, and I realized that all those measures that I had in place to protect myself weren’t working.”
She started going to teletherapy, which she said has been fantastic for her.
At any point in life, Van der Stad said people can have thoughts of suicide.
“It's a perfectly normal human experience, but what’s not OK is to struggle by yourself,” she said. “We encourage people to reach out, get help, and you know breaking down those barriers so that people know that help is available, and that it's not a character flaw, it's not a character weakness, to have these thoughts, but there is help available.”
If you are in crisis, call 800-273-8255 or text TALK to 741741.
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