The other public health crisis
While wearing masks, washing hands and physical distancing can help prevent the spread of COVID-19, there is another kind of prevention requiring vigilance: suicide prevention. A pandemic may not lead to the taking of one's own life, but it can bring about the potential.
"It creates a garden where risk factors can grow and intensify," observes Chief Behavioral Health Officer Bradley Grigg. "Like increased anxiety over finances, housing, employment—things that identify who we are and what we do as human beings. It can create new and overwhelming anxiety and depression that could push someone to the edge."
"We see it every day," says Grigg. On average, Bartlett mental health professionals assess four people experiencing a behavioral health crisis. "Many of them express feelings of self-harm."
Before COVID-19 hit, Bartlett Behavioral Health added staff and services to deal with the epidemic of substance misuse.
Help is available 24/7. People experiencing a mental health emergency can visit the Emergency Department, where they're connected with a psychiatrist, a therapist or both. The Bartlett treatment team can administer medications and offer therapy to treat depression and other mental health concerns linked with suicide.
Longer-term help is available via telehealth. Licensed clinical therapist Justina Yung works with patients by multiple platforms, including Zoom and phone.
"Staying connected is really important right now," she says. "We're not alone in this; this is something that affects all of us." Reaching out and talking to someone, being heard and making a plan for the next steps to keep mentally healthy are key to self-care.
COVID-19 and suicide share some of the same risk factors, including trauma or loss, serious illness, alcohol and drug misuse, and social isolation.
Suicide predates the pandemic as a public health issue. Alaska ranks second in the nation for suicide per capita. Nationally, suicides have risen 30% since 2000.
Awareness saves lives
Risk factors can lead to suicide if they go untreated. "Suicidal ideation can creep in and start to take control of the person's thought process," Grigg says.
"Everything finds itself hinging on that depression, on that anxiety. What may look like a little thing to one person can send another person to where they can't cope. That is what we see in the Emergency Department."
Since summer 2019, Bartlett Behavioral Health has been working with patients in crisis in the ED. Previously, adults were met by therapists from the Juneau Alliance for the Mentally Ill and minors by professionals with Juneau Youth Services.
But not everyone thinks of visiting the ED when they are in crisis. While heading to the hospital with a broken arm doesn't get a second thought, doing the same thing with a broken spirit is not on everyone's radar screen. And while public awareness is high for the warning signs of heart attack or stroke, not so much for depression that could lead to self-harm.
"We need to look at substance use and mental health the same way that we look at physical health," says Grigg. "It is just as important."
Such awareness could also save lives.