Another pandemic we don’t understand
There are many things we know about pandemics. We know that the COVID-19 pandemic is the result of a widespread viral infection caused by the new coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Last week, this column lamented lifestyle-related diseases of obesity and type 2 diabetes and lamented the lack of concerted social action on the pandemic proportions of these stealthy but determined killers. But there is yet another pandemic, the all too often stifled problem of poor mental health, which sometimes results in its most devastating form, suicide.
The fact is that, for more than 100 years, there has been little progress in understanding the factors that lead to a dismal mental state – the state that must be the precursor to suicide. Medicine has made huge strides in diagnosing, treating and saving many diseases. Advances in knowledge have led to the development of vaccines, medical imaging, antibiotics and antiviral drugs that have radically changed the course of human health. Organ transplants, stem cell research and immunotherapy have brought hope and prolonged the lives of millions of people in recent years.
But our understanding of the brain and the mind is slow to come.
The World Health Organization estimates that 800,000 people die from suicide each year. It’s one person every 40 seconds. For every person who dies by suicide, there can be about twenty other people who try. But like the obesity and diabetes pandemics, we haven’t stopped the economy. We did not organize daily press conferences. We hardly recognize it.
However, these statistics indicate that suicide is a bigger killer than COVID-19. And a recent article in JAMA Psychiatry warns that the prevalence of suicide may worsen due to COVID-19.
A major concern is the extensive requirement for social distancing. Researchers have documented the association between social isolation and suicidal thoughts and behaviors. But the list of other related factors is long and familiar to those living in the COVID-19 era – economic stress, child care pressures, limited access to community and religious support, barriers to health treatment mental and aggravating effect of other existing health problems.
Unfortunately, sales of firearms have increased in the United States and Canada since the start of the COVID-19 crisis. Firearms are the most common method of suicide. Researchers have demonstrated an association between suicide rates and access to a firearm.
For some people, especially the elderly, and paradoxically, for some health workers, suicidal feelings may arise from a concern for family members or from a desire to avoid overloading.
But there is good news to report. Neuroscientists and other mental health experts are beginning to open new paths to understanding the biological factors that determine the health of the brain and the mind. One of these areas is the connection between the brain and the gut. Millions of nerves and neurons send signals from the gut to the brain as part of our “microbiome”. Treating the headaches can be a matter of thinking better about our bodies.
But you don’t have to be a brain surgeon to perform one of the most effective interventions to prevent suicide. All you have to do is reach out. Take the time to think of someone you know who may feel isolated. Make a phone call. Drop them a line. Send a gift. They call it the “bridging effect,” when people come together in a shared experience, offering mutual support and encouragement.
If you experience suicidal feelings yourself, you should also reach out. In the United States, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK). In Canada, call Crisis Services Canada (1-833-456-4566) or text 45645.