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We are not all OK

When I was in high school, I lost a classmate to suicide.

His tragic story incorporated some of the same fatal elements Shakespeare mentioned in recounting the tale of Romeo and Juliet. His death created an unfillable void which was conspicuously marked by a black page in our senior yearbook.

Years later, my husband and I found ourselves grieving after a friend died by his own hand. Although we provided a home for his heartbroken dog, there was no comfort for the bewilderment we felt. We were plagued by the question, was there anything we could have done to prevent the disaster?

These two memories have been on my mind recently as our community and nation begin to emerge from the societal changes imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many headlines have discussed medical advances in vaccines against the virus and treatments for the physical illnesses it causes, but I haven’t seen as much discussion concerning the emotional and mental consequences of isolation, anxiety and relationship strains.

Earlier this year, Dr. Joshua Gordon, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, wrote, “From prior research on disasters and epidemics we mostly knew what to expect. In the immediate wake of a traumatic experience, large numbers of affected people report distress, including new or worsening symptoms of depression, anxiety and insomnia.”

Gathered statistical evidence supports this observation. Gordon recounted recent survey results, writing, “Thirty-one percent of respondents reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, 13% reported having started or increased substance use, 26% reported stress-related symptoms and 11% reported having serious thoughts of suicide in the past 30 days. These numbers are nearly double the rates we would have expected before the pandemic.”

In addition to this officially gathered evidence, I have been concerned by things I’ve observed. Some people who used to find solace in group gatherings, whether in religious meetings, through service organization get-togethers or just from the camaraderie of sharing neighboring tables in the coffee shop, have suffered new kinds of loneliness. People whose jobs were eliminated or changed have had to deal with financial stresses, experimental scheduling and uncertainty about the future. People forced to work long hours under conditions that placed their own families at risk have had to cope with fatigue, tension and worry.

Alienation among family members also seems to be a growing problem. I was saddened when someone in my extended family created a post on social media declaring his wish to sever relationships with people who did not actively support an eclectic mix of conspiracy theories. That included me. It also extended to the offline world, contributing to a loss of contact with his own mother. In what may be a similar vein, I “unfollowed” two cousins-in-law who occupy opposite sides of the political aisle. They appeared unable to temper their back-and-forth mudslinging, name-calling and hate. I simply got tired of wading through the massive amounts of muck they created every day. Although I no longer see their daily diatribes, I remain concerned about the mental wellness of people who would put so much effort into such a trivial tempest.

This is the brave new world into which we are venturing.

I hope that you are OK, but as you begin to make forays into social places, please remember that all are not doing well. Those at risk may include your co-workers, classmates or neighbors. They may be members of your church. They may be serving you at a restaurant, helping you checkout in a store or just walking past you on the sidewalk. Small acts of kindness may help someone regain stability. By offering grace instead of judgement, you may save someone’s life.

If you’re the one feeling overstressed, anxious, depressed or otherwise not OK, the National Institute of Mental Health offers these suggestions: Take breaks from the news. Take care of your body. Make time to unwind. Connect with others. Set goals and priorities. Focus on the facts.

NIMH also highlights the availability of these resources:

Crisis Text Line: Text HELLO to 741741

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8225)

Lifeline Chat: https://suididepreventionlifeline.org/chat

If someone is in immediate danger, call 911 or take them to the hospital’s emergency department.

KAREN BELLENIR has been writing for The Farmville Herald since 2009. Her book, Happy to Be Here: A Transplant Takes Root in Farmville, Virginia features a compilation of her columns. It is available from PierPress.com. You can contact Karen at kbellenir@PierPress.com.