Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, and suicide rates have been on the rise steadily since 2000, according to the John Hopkins Psychiatry Guide.
While it may still be too early to draw a correlation between Covid-19 and deaths by suicide, experts say that the pandemic, like previous ones, has exacerbated factors that may increase suicides, including anxiety, social isolation and the loss of loved ones, jobs and careers.
“Suicidal crises have become more prevalent and calls to crisis centers have increased,” says trauma psychologist Shauna Springer, who calls “the confluence of vulnerabilities” created by the pandemic “a perfect storm” for suicidal thoughts.
The Harvard-educated Springer, who holds a Ph.D. from the University of Florida, is a trauma psychologist and Psychology Today blogger. (Based in northern California, she is the chief psychologist for Stella, a network of PTSD clinics that partners with talk therapists and offers a procedure, the Stellate Ganglion Block, that involves injecting a local anesthetic into a cluster of nerves in the neck to calm the fight-or-flight response.)
While she has done extensive work with members of the military who affectionately call her “Doc” Springer — she is the author of “Warrior: How to Support Those Who Protect Us” and the co-author (with Jason Roncoroni) of “Beyond the Military: A Leader’s Handbook for Warrior Reintegration” — 70% percent of her patients are civilians suffering from all kinds of trauma.
“What I have learned about trauma is that it applies to all of us,” Springer says. “The chronic threat response, the surges of anxiety and irritability: It changes us biologically and psychologically.
“The really important point,” she added, “is that human suffering is universal and thoughts of suicide are not rare.”
Recently, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, revealed that she had suicidal thoughts brought on by the confinement of her life within the British royal family. She is, she told interviewer Oprah Winfrey, in a better place now, happy with her husband, Prince Harry; their son, Archie; and their expected baby girl in their new Montecito, California, home. The prospects are not as rosy for many of the hard-working, perfectionistic young women of Japan, where suicide is on the rise in that demographic group.
What accounts, then, for the difference between suicidal thoughts and acting upon them?
“There’s no single cause for suicide and that’s a humbling truth for all of us,” Springer says. “There may be a genetic predisposition to depression, which is a risk factor. But depression is not the only cause of suicide….A suicidal crisis can be triggered by the loss of a loved one, especially the loss of a loved one to suicide.”
Right now, she says, the nation is experiencing traumatic grief, with more than 550,000 dead. That grief is underscored by the reality that in many if not most cases, we haven’t been able to attend the deathbeds or funerals of lost loved ones. Loss and social isolation can be a devastating combination, one that even those with the strongest identities cannot weather. Indeed, a strong identity can be a risk factor if that identity is threatened, Springer says. She has seen it among military members who embody “the warrior code” and then have to transition to civilian life.
“When you lose your structure and your role, that’s a risk factor.” In the pandemic, many who have lost jobs, careers and relationships are struggling with their sense of themselves.
Meghan told Oprah that she gave up the trappings and reality of her identity as an independent-minded American actress and feminist — her name, her career and her blog, along with her car keys, driver’s license and passport — to take on a role for which she said she received little training and support.
Support is the key two-way street — support for those who are suicidal and reaching out to others if you yourself have suicidal thoughts.
“It’s not so much a case of if you can pull yourself out of a crisis,” Springer says. “It’s can you turn to those you love and trust?”
Suicidal thoughts dwell in valleys and tunnels, Springer says. The way through is by connecting.
“You have to connect with people you love and trust and assemble a team of support. But you also have to find some purpose and connect to the deeper meaning of suffering.
“When you connect, you survive.”
If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. For more on Shauna Springer, visit docshaunaspringer.com.