Suicide Awareness Month was celebrated last month, but experts say concern with suicide and mental health should always be on the forefront
By Jenna Schifferle
A few years ago, I received the news that one of my classmates from high school died.
After a years-long battle with depression, he chose to end his life in his 20s with so many years left unlived. A million thoughts ran through my head when I learned the news. Though I had never been close to him, I wondered if I could have done more to prevent his suicide or, at very least, make him feel less alone.
A Wide-Spread Crisis
Sadly, this story is not unique. An estimated 1.4 million suicide attempts occurred in 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Data & Statistics Fatal Injury Report. As a result of those suicide attempts, more than 48,000 Americans lost their lives.
These figures only scratch the surface of a greater mental health crisis that has seen 17.3 million adults in the United States experiencing at least one major depressive episode, according to the 2017 National Survey of Drug Use and Health.
As a nation, we observed Suicide Awareness Month in September. Efforts to talk about suicide and mental health, however, should continue year-round. These conversations are instrumental in fostering a deeper understanding of mental health and bringing visibility to issues that are commonly stigmatized. From there, we can begin to break down barriers that make people feel alone and isolated.
The Pandemic’s Impact
The pandemic has made conversations about mental health even more pressing. People are losing their jobs as companies are downsizing and small businesses are closing their doors. Families are going months without seeing each other, and even when reunited, they have to navigate safety precautions and social distancing. Uncertainty underlies many people’s daily lives, leaving anxiety and stress that can be detrimental to mental health.
Below, several experts weigh in on the pandemic’s impact on mental health and offer advice on how to recognize our own struggles and support loved ones who are also struggling.
Alissa DeFini: “A lot of times, support can just be listening in a nonjudgmental way.”
Alissa DeFini, a licensed mental health counselor in Tonawanda, points out that widespread job uncertainty, transitions to remote work or back to in-office work, and the changing landscape of education are just three of the factors people have been navigating during the pandemic. Add those factors to the general sense of anxiety people feel about COVID-19 and the impact of seeing loved ones fall ill, and people’s mental health is suffering, DeFini said. These situational factors have exacerbated pre-existing mental health concerns.
To overcome the stress and anxiety that affects mental health, DeFini recommends a mix of mindfulness-based and cognitive-based techniques. Mindfulness focuses on centering ourselves in the now rather than living in the past or the future, while cognitive-based techniques focus on challenging negative thoughts using critical questions. For instance, is this thought based on feeling, fact, or simple habit?
As for supporting loved ones who are struggling, DeFini recommends being present and lending an open ear.
“A lot of times, support can just be listening in a nonjudgmental way.”
Above all, DeFini wants people to know that the anxiety and fear brought about by the pandemic are to be expected given the circumstances. For that reason, it’s important for people to maintain a healthy diet, exercise, improve their social support system and get a good night’s sleep.
“There are a lot of folks struggling with this, and it’s normal to feel anxious during this time. You are not alone.”
Katie Mullaney: Art can make a difference
Katie Mullaney, a licensed creative arts therapist in Buffalo, agrees that the pandemic has triggered people who already struggle with mental health issues. Even people who haven’t been previously diagnosis with a mental health condition have found themselves feeling more depressed or anxious as a result of social isolation and uncertainty.
This is where art can make a difference. Mullaney runs a studio called Create Space Buffalo where people can take individual or group therapy sessions. In those sessions, participants practice mindfulness techniques and use art to navigate their experiences. Art can be a useful medium to help people process what’s going on in our world, she says.
“As humans, we create pictures in our mind of memories. Kids grow up processing things through their art. They draw pictures of who they want to be. They draw pictures of their family. They draw pictures of their friends. That’s all part of processing their experiences. As we grow older, we stop doing that.”
By creating art, Mullaney says people access a part of their brain that’s connected to emotions and trauma. This allows them to work through issues differently than they would verbally.
“Art brings up things you might not have otherwise been aware of. It brings out a part of your story that you may not have known was there.”
Beyond art, Mullaney recommends three tips for improving mental health during the pandemic: reach out to a source that feels safe, even if it’s through phone or video call; create structure every day and include self-care as a regular practice; and find a way to process things for yourself, whatever that may look like.
For more information on Create Space Buffalo, visit createspacebuffalo.com.
Paul Cartone: “We’re programmed at a young age not to cope with our feelings, and that’s why we distract ourselves.”
When it comes to the pandemic, most of us have heard the expression “the new normal.” For Paul Cartone, a psychotherapist and life and sports coach in Amherst, the new normal is temporary like many things in life. A year or two from now, fears about work, money, school, and illness will look much different.
Despite this assurance, Cartone said that these fears can be overwhelming in the moment. As a counselor, his job is to ground people in reality and help them understand the logical. This requires a change in perspective.
“We’re programmed at a young age not to cope with our feelings, and that’s why we distract ourselves.”
Our emotions and the way we process them are deeply rooted at the cellular level, Cartone says. Often, this takes us to a place of fear and irrational thinking. To counteract it, we have to deal with how we’re feeling, which starts with recognizing that we’re not OK. From there, we should identify the feeling and name the emotion. Once we do, we can allow ourselves to feel it. If it’s within our control to change it, we can; otherwise, we have no choice but to let it go. Only then should we turn to distractions like exercise or television.
Of course, sometimes it’s the ones we love who are struggling. In that case, Cartone recommends reaching out to the one we’re worried about and being there when they’re ready to talk. Beyond that, the most important thing we can do is learn the signs that someone might be struggling or contemplating suicide:
• Irritability or aggression
• Sleeping too much or too little
• Uncharacteristic behavior
• Talking about suicide or not wanting to live
• Giving away possessions
• Excessive alcohol or drug use
“Sometimes people feel like talking about their mental health makes them a burden, but that’s not true. There’s always help out there, no matter what.”
For more tips from Paul Cartone, visit his website at justbementallyfree.com.
Reach Out for Help
If you or someone you love are struggling with depression, anxiety, substance abuse, or are contemplating suicide, reach out for support by calling Crisis Services of Western New York at 716-834-3131. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.