It’s no secret the coronavirus crisis has thrust mental health struggles into a national spotlight as people everywhere are beset by the problems this pandemic has created. But no image has proven as resonant as the sight of a man who climbed to the top of the Brooklyn Bridge last week with the intent to jump.
Police managed to bring the man down safely, but that nameless individual is far from the only one who has contemplated taking the supreme sacrifice.
“People are so desperate,” Heather Lehrman, a Glen Cove business owner who is one of hundreds who have spent months waiting on unemployment payments, said. “I’m in a bad enough place of my own, but people are wanting to commit suicide at this point. Everyone’s getting the runaround and no one’s getting a dime.”
Statistics on confirmed suicides since the state shutdown began are still in flux, but preliminary data suggests most of those thoughts have remained just that. But Meryl Cassidy, director for Long Island’s branch of the Suicide Prevention Hotline, said the area’s crisis center has been inundated with people seeking help since the pandemic began.
“We are very busy on the crisis hotline,” Cassidy, who also serves as co-chair of the Suicide Prevention Coalition of Long Island, said. “We also do a lot of online chat, so we’ve seen a big increase in that. And that makes sense, because if you’re sheltering in place you want privacy. If you’re on chat and someone walks in, you can just turn your screen away.”
In February, Cassidy stated the center received around 700 calls, not unusual for any given month. In March, that number jumped to more than 1,100. This April, that number nearly hit 1,300.
Suicidal thoughts have been fairly common among the calls the crisis center has received in recent months, but Cassidy’s team deals with people reaching out for substance abuse problems, domestic abuse issues and general feelings of loneliness and despair among other things. The stress, close-quarter confinement and money problems coronavirus has brought along in its wake, she said, all contribute to situations Long Islanders and people around the nation need help with.
“If you’re already struggling with anxiety or depression or in a difficult relationships or living paycheck to paycheck before this happened and then this stupid pandemic happens, it’s certainly going to exacerbate whatever your vulnerabilities were,” Cassidy said. “Social isolation and loneliness were already very big contributors to feelings of suicide.”
The crisis center recently finished training an additional 25 counselors to help them handle the increased numbers of people reaching out to them, which has helped them move forward during the pandemic without any disruptions in service. From start to finish, it takes around 10 weeks to train somebody to adapt to their system.
“You can’t just pick up the phone and start talking to people in crisis, you need a lot of training,” Cassidy said. “You need to know not only just active listening and counseling skills, you need to know a lot about how to assess suicide risk, how to keep people safe, how to assess violence and all the different mental health issues people struggle with. You need to know all the different resources out there for people and how to get people to those resources.”
Ironically enough, since the job can be done remotely, in some cases Cassidy said working remotely has actually increased the counselors’ availability.
“In some situations, we’re actually staffed up better,” Cassidy said. “That’s been a little bit of a silver lining.”
While the center has been trying to increase its ability to handle web-based chat services as well as traditional phone calls, being able to counsel effectively online requires some skills that a phone counselor doesn’t need.
“We do a lot of training on how not to sound like a robot,” Cassidy said. “Being able to connect with someone through chat can be challenging at first, and the chats tend to take a bit longer. But in some ways it’s easier because you’re right there and you can see it unfolding. You can be providing the guidance in real time.”
Rather than simply speaking with somebody in crisis the one time they call, the center’s team works on following up with callers to check in on their well-being and refer them to the resources they need to be helped. It’s easy for anybody to bombard a person in crisis with a wall of numbers and email addresses, but Cassidy said the advantage of contacting a crisis center is in having all of that data processed through people with experience.
Anybody looking for help can contact the Response Crisis Center’s hotline at 631-751-7500 or visit www.responsecrisiscenter.org to peruse their resources online, all free of charge. Furthermore, Cassidy recommended people visit www.covidmentalhealthsupport.org for a comprehensive database of free resources to help anybody struggling with mental health issues that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.