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San Antonio psychologist predicts increase in suicidal thinking as pandemic progresses

Dr. Lindsay Bira suggests finding ways to tend to your mental health needs while avoiding self-isolation

SAN ANTONIO – As the COVID-19 pandemic continues and shows no sign of ending anytime soon, the growing concern over the topic of suicide is increasing nationwide, according to a San Antonio clinical psychologist.

At the start of the pandemic, Dr. Lindsay Bira, a clinical health psychologist, interviewed with a KSAT crew and offered tips for those dealing with the stay-home restrictions and isolation.

“Our mental health will be affected if this continues. If it lasts longer than a year, we are going to have major adjustment problems --problems adjusting to the chronic stress we are experiencing now,” Bira said. “Our bodies are really good with dealing with short-term stress, but long-term stress (makes) our bodies get exhausted. We have been in this for a few months now. I am definitely seeing people enter into the exhaustion stage, and if this lasts longer, we are going to see more of that and more struggles and more issues overall.”

She said she has seen an increase of calls related to COVID-19 concerns in her private practice alone.

“These calls are related to COVID-19 social isolation and the effects of that. That includes increased depression, anxiety, suicidal thinking and more,” Bira said. “People are very worried about doing the wrong thing, like taking the wrong action that could lead to consequences we are seeing in the news media, like getting COVID(-19) and having severe consequences or passing it on to family members and feeling very guilty for having caused that.”

She said the growing fear makes people feel immobilized in terms of how to make the right decisions.

“While we have to follow the rules and make sure we are staying free from the virus, we have to do things that help us emotionally so we can stay balanced and healthy,” Bira said. “We have to weigh the data but also weigh the heart. Our physical health is nothing without our emotional health and emotional well being.”

Bira said experts are watching all factors that are coming to fruition during this pandemic.

“Right now, we don’t have the data that would show if COVID(-19) and the effects of social isolation have caused an increase in suicide over and above what normally would have happened, but we do know there have been cases where people have committed suicide based on the COVID-19 pandemic,” Bira said.

She said risk factors promoted by the pandemic include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Social isolation
  • Money Issues
  • Feeling like a burden to other people
  • Alcohol and substance abuse

“We know that substance abuse is increasing significantly during this pandemic,” Bira said. “Everybody is at home. People are just stressed and lacking resources to cope. People are reaching for alcohol and drugs. They are more likely to be depressed and commit actions they will regret later, like suicide attempts.”

Bira said one statistic psychologists take seriously is that for every one suicide, there are 25 suicide attempts.

“And for every one person who attempts but survives, there are countless others out there having suicidal thoughts. Some people don’t want to admit it because they are ashamed. A lot of people have suicidal thoughts, which is something people shouldn’t be ashamed of but should reach out for help,” Bira said. “I think this is the case more than usual now because of the stress factors, such as social isolation, which is the biggest predictor of not recovering from stress. Social support and community involvement help that, but we don’t have that right now.”

She said the data regarding suicide during the coronavirus pandemic will come in a couple of years. However, there is research that shows the trends regarding other pandemics.

“We have data research from multiple sources and outstanding academic institutions who looked at data from pandemics like SARS and the Spanish Flu,” Bira said. “We also see after previous pandemics and economic downturns, we have an increase in suicides. It is estimated (there were) about 10,000 more cases of suicide after the economic downturn of 2008, and in 2009, there were recorded more suicides than deaths in car crashes.”

Bira said these factors add to stressors during economic downturns:

  • Job loss
  • Home foreclosures
  • Debt
  • Pre-existing mental health conditions

She said her phone hasn’t been the only phone ringing off the hook during the progression of this pandemic.

“Data we have looked at that is preliminary has shown several people are calling multiple suicide hotlines. Some of the hotlines have seen an increase of calls up to 300% in comparison to this time last year,” Bira said. “People are having more distress and are needing to reach out, which is a good sign that they are reaching out, but many people are not. Some people don’t know where to turn, and some are just embarrassed.”

Bira said the biggest issue is the limitation of being involved in community groups, such as churches or community projects.

“Right now, we have a very long-term stressor and the inability to engage in things that keep us healthy. This creates an equation that ends up leading to more distress, and it is quite honestly very scary,” Bira said. “One thing I want to highlight is that we saw a decrease in suicides after 9/11 because people came together as a community and supported each other. That is what we need, but that is not what I am seeing now. Something I am seeing now is people being angry with each other. People are clashing and fighting and saying rude things. In a time like this, that is not was needs to be happening.”

Bita stressed that it is important that people stick together with the same goal of fighting this virus.

“We need more understanding that some people will have different opinions and reactions,” Bira said. “The more we reject conflict, the better. I just encourage everyone to tap into that compassion to other people, even if we don’t understand different points of view. We just need to come together and promote resiliency.”

Ways to seek help if you are experiencing suicidal thoughts:


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