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The Urgency of Connection in the COVID-19 Era

Young woman looking depressed, holding her phone

“People care, they love you, and they want to support you. There’s somebody and something in this world that is better because you’re around. I know it might be hard to see, but it’s there. Explore and look for that. You’re important and you matter.” Josh, survivor of a suicide attempt

In 2019, suicide was the 10th leading cause of death overall in the United States, claiming the lives of more than 47,500 people. That was before the COVID pandemic — before people got sick or lost loved ones, jobs, and access to family, friends, and social activities. According to a Mental Health America brief, 38 percent of the 725,949 people who completed the organization’s mental health screening had suicidal thoughts in 2020.

And the situation has been even worse among young people. During 2020, the proportion of mental health-related emergency department (ED) visits among adolescents aged 12‒17 increased 31 percent compared with 2019. For girls in particular, ED visits for suspected suicide attempts between February 21 and March 20, 2021 were 50.6 percent higher among girls 12‒17 than in the previous year.

A Needed Perspective

Particularly for teens, we know that the pandemic has taken a terrible toll on mental health. At a time when adolescents are forming a sense of self and how they fit into the world, they have been cut off from a social life. Negative messages on social media can have a big effect. Conflicts at home aren’t improved by other adult interactions. Teens have not had the life experience to develop the perspective of time and the awareness that circumstances can change.

Strategies to prevent suicide among young people include:

  • Strengthening economic supports for families
  • Limiting access to medications and firearms
  • Training community and school staff members to learn the signs of suicide risk
  • Increasing young people’s social connections and coping skills

Talking to a primary care provider is a good first step to connecting an individual at risk to counseling or medical care.

Ask How They are Feeling and Listen

The most immediate and important thing you can do if you suspect someone is thinking about hurting themselves is to ask them how they are feeling. Reassure them that they are not alone. Be available. Show interest, listen, and allow the person to express their feelings without judgment. Support them in thinking about other ways to deal with their feelings, such as talking with a specialist in crisis intervention.

If you are interested in connecting with others who have been affected by suicide, the Greater Philadelphia chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention serves the five-county region with information and support. A free Out of the Darkness Greater Philadelphia Walk will be held October 3, 2021, starting at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Help is Available

If you or someone you know is in crisis, there is help. Please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free, and confidential emergency support for people in distress, prevention, and crisis resources for you or your loved ones. Call 1-800-273-8255 for free and confidential support.

Help is also available through the Crisis Text Line. A live, trained Crisis Counselor receives your text and responds from a secure online platform. Text TALK to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Counselor.

Dr. Ryan Connolly, M.D., M.S.

About Dr. Ryan Connolly, M.D., M.S.

K. Ryan Connolly M.D., M.S. is a psychiatrist and behavioral health medical director at Independence Blue Cross. He is also a Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. Dr. Connolly has worked to improve mental health at the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health, and has published on the subject of improving outcomes in depression treatment. Dr. Connolly has received degrees from the John's Hopkins University, Georgetown University, and Temple University, and completed his residency training at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.