Over the past 11 months we have become accustomed to daily reports informing us how many new cases, hospitalizations and deaths are a result of the coronavirus. What is less often reported, and perhaps more important, is the trickle-down mental effects of the pandemic.
A recent study published by The Kaiser Family Foundation found that 53 percent of adults in the United States say their mental health has been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over the coronavirus. New census data for North Carolina reveals that 1 in 3 report feelings of anxiety or depression, specifically feeling overwhelmed, isolated, lonely and fearful of getting sick themselves or having family or friends infected. People lament the disruption to their regular routines, as well as the resulting economic and personal financial problems. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates a 31 percent increase in depression, with stress-related disorders increasing by 26 percent.
It isn’t surprising the CDC says illicit drug use has increased by 13 percent. Our state reports hospital emergency department visits are down overall, but drug overdose emergency department visits increased by 22 percent last year; opioid overdose visits increased by 23 percent. Perhaps most alarming is that the CDC says that suicides in the U.S. were 3 to 4 times more frequent in 2020 than in 2019. The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services reports that in 2019 there were 1,300 suicides in our state. 2020 numbers are not available because we don’t require electronic death certificates.
The most troubling concerns are for our children. Our state’s number of youth suicides doubled between 2009 and 2018. In 2019, before the pandemic, the Youth Behavior Risk Survey, a representative sample of 3,000-plus high school students in NC, reported 18.9 percent of high school students seriously considered attempting suicide. Our state reports an 11.5 percent increase in calls to the National Suicide Prevent hotline in 2020.
In Clark County, Nevada, the fifth largest school district in the country, officials just voted to reopen their schools because of the social-emotional impact COVID-19 closures were having on their students. In the past 10 months Clark County experienced 4,000 referrals involving student mental health episodes and 19 suicides, more than double the previous year. The youngest suicide was just 9 years old. The Journal of The American Medical Association just announced that school-aged children are 10 times more likely to die by suicide than from COVID-19, further justification for getting children safely back in the classroom.
Aren’t parents aware of their children’s emotional and suicidal problems? Sometimes parents don’t know what signs to look for. They are with their children continuously and don’t notice subtle changes in behaviors. Besides, children don’t always express how they feel. In the case of interpersonal emotional or physical abuse, often the result of the parent’s own mental or addictive behaviors, nothing gets reported. But teachers, nurses and social workers in schools often see the problems. Adverse child experiences like abuse, neglect and emotional issues have negative long-term effects on children.
We are losing too many lives to this pandemic and don’t need more families and children affected. Here are some helpful suggestions. Go outside and take a walk or exercise. Call a friend or loved one and talk. Play family games. And you can call 911 to express concerns. Those operators are trained to connect you with someone who can help. Another good way is to dial 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).
You, your children and other family members are not alone in having emotional issues. A just-released OnePoll survey reports one in six Americans entered therapy for the first time this past year. We wear masks, keep socially distanced, wash hands and take the vaccinations to protect our physical health. We need to be just as aggressive in protecting our mental health.
Tom Campbell is a Hall of Fame North Carolina Broadcaster and columnist who has covered North Carolina public policy issues since 1965.