Are suicides increasing during COVID-19?

It was a frequently used argument during the pandemic, one often used against lockdowns: Suicide rates would increase as a result of social isolation, financial hardships, and more limited access to proper medical care. This fear was repeated by medical professionals and medical health care experts. Even Donald Trump repeated the line at one point, arguing that extensive lockdowns would lead to “thousands” of suicides. So great that he and so many others suddenly care about mental health when they spent years defunding services that would prevent suicide and trying to rip health care away from millions, but that’s a completely different story, so let’s move on, let’s move on.

We’re about four months into some of the various lock-downs and quarantines. The question is obvious: What does the data say? Are suicide rates on the rise?

It seems like its too early to tell. We will only be able to more definitively tell the numbers when the annual suicide numbers come out at the beginning of the year, and even then, it will be extremely difficult to determine the cause of the suicide. However, there is some evidence to indicate that things are not as bad as many of us feared they would be – though that could very, very easily change.

First, let’s look at what data is available and what data has been misleading. At the beginning of the pandemic, a doctor said that his California hospital had seen “a year’s worth of suicide attempts” during a four-week period. That report was utterly debunked: Numbers had barely increased at the hospital in question, and locals reported that they believed the local rate had remained stable in the area.

Apparently, calls to some suicide hotlines have increased. Outreach to suicide prevention text lines has increased as well. However, this may not be a bad thing, as it may be a reflection of people turning to the closest support line to get help. Indeed, if these hotlines are working, the increase in calls may be a good thing. Again, unfortunately, there’s no evidence to say one way or the other.

I couldn’t find any hard data discussing whether or not there was any evidence of suicide rate increases in the United States – if someone has that, please correct me. However, I did find evidence that suicide rates have actually dropped 20% in Germany. This is a preliminary finding, so it is likely too early to draw hard conclusions from it.

There is no question that COVID-19 will cause a massive spike in a wide array of social problems, and suicide would certainly seem to be one of these problems. However, as noted by many articles on the subject, it’s more nuanced than simply saying that “The lockdowns led to more deaths.” The pandemic also ripped apart the economy, threw us into a recession, and maybe a depression. There is clear evidence that down economies lead to higher rates of mental illness and suicide. As such, it is difficult to say that lockdowns lead to suicides. It is much more complex than that.

So, what’s the conclusion? There’s no conclusion. Not yet. Time will tell. But, more importantly, policymakers and the community at large must continue to work to mitigate the economic and social impacts of COVID – particularly on the mentally ill. I’m hoping to be able to work on that one over the summer.

COVID-19, Mental Health and Black Lives Matter

Hey, everyone!

First, I apologize. My blog entries have obviously been spotty for the past few months. There is a reason for that: The real world. Simply put, my job as State Representative became too overwhelming. This, along with other responsibilities, made it really difficult for me to blog. I am sorry and I will try to get back into my twice a week habit now.

So, let’s get right to it. Every one of us has been following the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent explosion of the Black Lives Matters movement. If you read my blog, I’m guessing you are at least somewhat progressively orientated. That probably means you are shocked and horrified at the current state of the world, and want to do something to make it better.

As a white man, I can’t sit here and yammer on about what the Black Lives Matter movement means. I represent a district that is about 1/2 minorities and work with dozens of other elected officials who are people of color, and I’ve tried to learn from their experiences to figure out not only how to do my job better, but how to be a better person.

From my perspective, acknowledging those limitations, I’ve come to the conclusion that we scream Black Lives Matter because society has decided for centuries that they don’t. That we scream Black Lives Matter at the top of our lungs because the communities of color have been devastated, destroyed, and degraded for centuries in a way that white people cannot begin to fathom.

To the casual observer, I think it gets too easy to assume that the entire Black Lives Matter movement only revolves around police reform and criminal justice. As best I can tell, that isn’t only the case. Black Lives Matter, at least to me, means that we address all of the systemic inequities in our society. That means addressing countless areas of our public policy, including education, urban planning, economic development, health care access and more.

It also, unquestionably, means mental health. I’ve written on this topic before, but even the briefest of looks at Google shows the enormous disparity facing the minority communities when it comes to mental health. Furthermore, new studies show that that levels of anxiety and depression spiked among the African American population after the murder of George Floyd. As if their burden wasn’t already enough to shoulder.

All this brings me back to COVID. I wrote a line in Redemption that I barely even thought about until a reviewer flagged it: “When civilization collapses, it doesn’t collapse evenly.” COVID has taught us that, hasn’t it? Obviously, civilization isn’t collapsing, but boy has it taken some hits.

And those hits have not been evenly distributed.

Just take a look at how COVID has hit minority communities. The evidence is painfully clear: According to the CDC, minority communities in general – and the African American community specifically – are more likely to contract COVID, be hospitalized as a result of COVID, and die from COVID. This isn’t a result of any genetic challenges. Instead, its a result of systematic discrimination that has resulted in years of poor health care access in general, substandard living conditions and worse health.

When civilization collapses, it won’t collapse evenly.

What’s my point? Pretty obvious. I think most of us agree with the statement that Black Lvies Matter. That means we have to act like it. It means our policy has to reflect those values, and that must be carried out in the way that we discuss all aspects of public policy. Mental health must be part of that equation.

The Long View

Morning, everybody!

As I type this, it is about two months from March 12, or as my wife and I have come to call it, the “before times.” I refer specifically to March 12, because in my mind, that’s the day Corona snapped away from an abstract problem to “Oh, hell, this is bad.” March 12 is the day that my local school district canceled classes after a potential COVID exposure with a teacher. It’s the day my region saw it’s first positive case. It’s the day local private schools began to close. It’s the day I closed my legislative offices. It’s also around the day that Tom Hanks announced he was positive and sports games started getting canceled. That, in my mind, is when everything started to change and become much more real.

So, what’s happened during those two months? Uhh…you know what, never mind. Let’s just not do that. You’ve lived it with me. You know how bad this is.

I’m writing this entry today with a simple goal: To urge you to change your perspective and to take the long view.

In those two months, tens of millions became unemployed. Businesses have collapsed. Large sectors of the economy have been decimated. Millions have been infected. Most of us know someone who was. Many of us lost family members or friends. This has been a nightmare and one that will change the world.

It will pass. All pandemics pass. Everything returns. Not to “normal,” but yes, everything returns.

So, here’s my plea in today’s entry: As best as you can, take the long view.

Whatever you have done in your life, however you have lived, you have unquestionably struggled. You have endured pain you thought would break you, lost people you thought you could never live without. You have undergone trauma, experienced things that were meant to bury you. However much pain you are in, however terrible things seem and whatever darkness you are currently surrounded by, please remember this:

You. Have. Survived.

In moments like this, it can be easy to lose perspective. It can be easy to forget that you have endured periods of your life that were so filled with darkness you never thought you’d recover. Please remember those moments at times like this. Please remember that you have gotten through and that you will again and again.

It’s been going on so long it can be easy to remember, but please: This pandemic will end. All pandemics do. This moment will pass. You will hug your family members again. You will go back to work. This moment will fade into your personal history. It will not be forever.

As best as you are capable during a pandemic, take the long view. Remember that time will ease this.

 

The Importance of Routine – Especially Now

My buddies in Harrisburg constantly make fun of me.

There are many reasons for this: My obvious good looks, my undeniable charm and my searing insight into local politics…okay none of those are true, but this is a tough time, let me pretend, okay?

No, there’s actually one reason in particular that they make fun of me that I wanted to talk about today, and I wanted to touch on it to discuss why it’s even more important, particularly now. My friends in Harrisburg make fun of me because I am an old man. I go to bed early. I HATE being out late. If we’re at a dinner or something, and it goes later than 8pm, I’m cranky.

Why? I have a routine. I like to be back in my hotel room by 8pm or so. I spend the time getting myself set up for the next day. I iron my shirt, load my gym bag. Then I spend an hour or so putzing around on the computer or reading, finishing up Emails. Around 10pm, I take a shower. By 1030, if not earlier, I like to be in bed.

My alarm is set for like 530am the next morning. I wake up, stumble around my hotel, climb into my car and head to the gym in the Capitol building. I work out, starting around 615 or so. Done by 715, shower and dressed by 745, grab breakfast and start my day.

Okay. Why the hell do you care about my evening and morning routine?

I mention it to make a point. I hate being away from my home and my family. Absolutely, positively hate it. That being said, when it comes to Harrisburg, more often than not, I’m in a hotel room at the end of the day. I’m about 90 minutes from home, so if we have a late-night or early morning, its just not worth getting in my car and going home.

So, for a guy with anxiety and depression issues, spending a lot of time away from home and the family that I love can be a challenge, and yes, it can be anxiety-producing. I’m probably in a hotel 50-70 nights a year (well, that will change this year for sure, but that’s another story).

One of the ways I have found to cope with it? I have a routine. And I mean a SET ROUTINE that I absolutely despise breaking and do not do so under virtually any circumstances. This routine absolutely, positively helps keep me grounded and focused. It is unquestionably a way to fight off my anxiety. It also has an added benefit: It keeps me prepared and set for the day in Harrisburg – days which are, incidentally, insanely busy. I frequently liken session days to bouncing around like a pinball.

Anyway, this entry is Corona related. How and why? Well, we’ve been indoors for a month now, and for many of us, we probably still have some time to go. If you are one of the lucky ones who is healthy and well, and able to stay in your home, your normal routine has probably been shot to hell. You’re now working from home, doing things you never thought possible from the comfort of your living room, trying to manage your kids’ education, worry about family and friends, etc.

There is a reason we all have routines. They are comforting and save your body invaluable decision-making energy. I get it – quarantine means we can back off of the things that keep us tied to the normal world, right? Sure, if that’s what you want. But understand that there is going to be quite a bit of anxiety associated with that.

The best thing I can advise? Find a routine, and stick to it. Develop the discipline to find things that keep you healthy and well. Set an alarm and get up at the same time. Dedicate X hours a day to doing Y. Go to bed at the same time. If you are working from home, develop a habit that signifies you’re done with work (change out of jeans and into sweatpants, go for a walk, whatever).

Routines help. And they help even more now at moments where we are cut off from so much that we know and love. Find a routine for yourself, and stick with it. Even now. Especially now.

What Do You Look Forward To?

Like everyone, the Schlossberg family has just had a grand ole time with adjusting to quarantine life. I’ve been legislating from my office, voting on bills from my bedroom, and trying to help desperate individuals try to access government benefits like unemployment. Brenna is trying to adjust to online teaching and constantly worries about her students or whether or not they are safe, eating well and being cared for. The kids are doing better than us, mostly, but Lord knows they miss their friends and their school lives. I’m just grateful they aren’t older and haven’t quite lost the idea that this is just an adventure with the family.

Life is hard. It’s hard for all of us, and you don’t need me to tell you that. And let me acknowledge again, I have it a hell of a lot better than many. Brenna, the kids and I are safe and healthy. We have food. We have shelter and we face no immediate economic thread as a result of this. There are so many people in worse shape than us. I don’t say that to devalue our pain or that of others, but to acknowledge that we have good fortune that others don’t.

But, I want to take a second to share a piece of advice that I have found incredibly useful as the days drag on, and this goes for everyone, no matter what your circumstances or levels of comfort are.

Every day, when the kids go to bed, I have a huge piece of cheesecake. I mean, we’re talking a piece of cheesecake the size of my head. It’s cherry cheesecake and from the Amish Bakery at the Allentown Farmer’s Market. Yes, I’d like several pieces, right now. Cheesecake and a big glass of milk.

Why am I writing about this on a blog about mental health?

I didn’t mean to do it, but at some point, I realized that the cheesecake became something I’d look forward to towards the end of the day. A goal. A point of relaxation. Like many of you, the lines between my work and professional life have always been relatively blurred, but even more so now that my home is also my office. The cheesecake was the ultimate sign of relaxation for me. It became something I’d look forward to. A nightly ritual I could enjoy that marked the end of the day.

At moments I was stressed, anxious or tired, I’d say to myself, “Just keep going. There’s cheesecake at the end of the day.”

This is probably useful for more than just a pandemic, but I have absolutely found that setting a ritual, adhering to that ritual, and enjoying that ritual can be very useful during the more stressful moments of a day. It gives me something to strive to – a little treat. It doesn’t have to be much. It doesn’t have to be cheesecake. But I have absolutely found that giving myself a pleasant reward at the end of a stressful day can make a world of difference.

So, that’s my advice to you. Set a goal. Stick to it. And find what works for you.

Have a wonderful day, everyone. Take care of yourselves and each other!

Remember this is a special moment – and go easy on yourself

Of all the things I’ve said since this stupid thing began – and I’ve said a lot – this is the one that stays with me. It’s something I said to my kids and then got quoted by a reporter. It occurred in the one time I’ve been to Harrisburg since the pandemic began, and that was for changing the House rules to allow for remote voting.

In the article, I was voting from my office and being interviewed by a reporter. I was just musing over the incredible strangeness of the entire situation, and I said:

This is so bizzare. I went for a walk with my kids the other day and I said, ‘I want you kids to remember this because I know it’s strange and scary. But one, we’re going to get through it, and two, your kids and grandkids will ask you what was it like to live through the coronavirus pandemic.’

I had said it to my kids the day before and I meant every word. I was trying to make sure my kids – 8 and 7 – understood the incredible uniqueness of the situation. None of us have ever lived through anything like this before. When we saw a deadly plague in some fiction book, it was quick and brutal. Not…locked in your house.

But, as has been noted by many people smarter than me, this time period is incredibly frightening. Even for those of us who are lucky enough to still be employed, it is stressful and anxiety-inducing. And it’s causing incredible stress and feelings of inadequacy. For example. Common thoughts and fears:

  • I’m stuck in my house – why am feeling so much pressure?
  • How am I going to educate my kids and do my job?
  • What happens if I get sick?
  • I can’t adjust to working this way!

An example? My poor wife (I am sharing this with her permission). She has been very (and understandably) stressed about teaching. She teaches in my local school district and switching the way you teach – in a time-pressure way, when you haven’t been trained until a few weeks ago – is awful. She is nervous about doing a good job and reaching her students appropriately.

I have said to her the same thing I’ll now say to all of you: You do the best you can. I have lost tons of sleep worrying about family, friends, and constituents. We all have. I think the best thing we can do is acknowledge that this is a special moment. Are our kids going to be okay? Yeah, most likely, they will. Will they be behind in school? I mean, compared to where they would have been in a world where some guy didn’t interact with a bat or something, yes. But compared to other kids? Probably not! And even if they are: That’s okay!

People. This is a literal plague. It is a life-taking, economy-wrecking, socially-life-destroying plague. You don’t have to write the next great American novel. You don’t have to start a new instrument, clean your house from top to bottom or personally reshingle your roof. You can just get through it, and that’s more than enough.

Acknowledge that this is a specially painful moment. And don’t judge yourself too harshly.

 

What can you learn from those who are doing better today?

This is a question that I have seen pop up from time to time, and I thought it was worth asking.

First, the obvious: Virtually everyone in the country, if not the modern world, has seen a massive degree of disruption and pain as a result of the Coronavirus. That disruption is likely to continue for some time. Work schedules have been disrupted, unemployment has shot through the roof, and millions around the world will likely be sickened by this disease before we get it under control. As I type this entry, 886,000+ people have been sickened with Corona, and 44,200+ have died. Those numbers are unquestionably low. And they will rise much, much higher before this is all said and done.

As I mentioned in my entry on Saturday, I’ve been grateful for many things, with a particular emphasis on the extensive amount of time that has been placed on helping people who are going to suffer emotionally as a result of the quarantine, economic disruption and more. Sadly, this is happening, and with tragic results. In my area, we just had a murder-suicide of someone who was apparently distressed over the pandemic and his job loss.

Let me take this issue, then, and turn it on its head. We spend a ton of time in the mental health world discussing all the things that are wrong. What about the things that are right?

So, here’s the magic question: What can we learn about people who are doing better, emotionally, as a result of the Coronavirus?

Believe it or not, they are out there. But my observation is that they almost entirely have a certain set of circumstances. Some we can learn from, some we can’t, and some will have you yelling at me for stating the obvious.

  • They are economically secure. It’s almost impossible to be in an emotionally secure place when your finances are in the air. So, these are folks who are either independently wealthy or have no financial worries in the near future.
  • The quarantine has made positive changes to their schedule. That means that they are glad they are stuck at home, but still getting paid.
  • The like the fact that they suddenly have so much free time. They suddenly can pursue passion projects, write the next Great American Novel, learn how to play the guitar or are otherwise in some sort of position of privilege.
  • Odds are good that they have been able to enjoy the outdoors more than usual, and they are happier about that.

What are the lessons from this, besides the obvious conclusion that being born wealthy and in a position of privilege is awesome for your mental health?

Seriously, there are more. The broader conclusion is both societal and individual.

Here it is: Society and culture matters for our mental health. Folks, if you’re in a job that you can’t stand, and suddenly you can’t go and you feel better, well…maybe that speaks volumes about your job. And maybe that shows just how important external factors are towards determining your mental health. I think this is something we forget about. Too many of us lay the blame for our mental illness on ourselves: Our upbringing. Our genetics. Our brains. Maybe, just maybe, your job sucks, and it makes you depressed.

The broader conclusion, and the lessons I hope we can learn from this, is that certain changes in our lifestyle and in the way we chose to live our lives can make us happy. That’s not to say that it’s time to hop in the car and drive to Mexico, screaming “ADIOS!” all the way down South.

But it is to say that you have to understand how real-life affects your real life. And I hope you can use this time to take advantage of whatever the quarantine is teaching you.

Finding Gratitude in the days of COVID-19

Hello, everyone!

First, an apology. As frequent readers know, my full-time job is to serve as a State Representative in Pennsylvania. The reason I haven’t blogged for the past two weeks is because of that. For obvious reasons, that job takes precedence over just about every other aspect of my life. And, as you can imagine, it has been a whirlwind. The state of Pennsylvania has seen a slow burn of Corona cases, like every other state. We had to shut down my legislative office and have spent a ton of effort and energy trying to help constituents, particularly those who have found themselves newly unemployed. It has been tragic and awful, and we’re doing everything we can to help people.

Anyway, that has taken up huge chunks of my time, and I didn’t have the mental energy to figure out how to blog. I apologize for that.

But, we’re settling in for the long haul here. So, hello again!

If you are reading this, I am sure that your life has been dramatically impacted by COVID-19. You may be stuck in a stay at home state (I’m in a stay-at-home county), be telecommuting or one of the millions of Americans who are newly unemployed. You may be sick or have a loved one who is suffering from this. It may be you.

These are uncertain, terrifying times. And, unfortunately, we’re only at the beginning. I hate typing that. I hate knowing that some of you probably just read that sentence and winced. Unfortunately, we have to be prepared for the days ahead.

Thankfully, while this is terrifying, there are many ways that you can retain a locus of control over this thing. It’s really simple: If you can stay at home, stay at home. Every first responder and expert is clear.

Not everyone has that luxury. Medical staff, first responders, government employees, and store employees are putting themselves in the line of fire so we can all live. They deserve our unending gratitude.

That, actually, is what I wanted to write about today. Gratitude.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how many people are talking about mental health and caring for it during this outbreak. People seem to be more understanding than ever about the mental health strain that this outbreak will cause everyone. We’re all scared about our own health, that of our loved ones and society in general. I think people fundamentally understand the pain that will come.

There are many ways to cope with this ongoing pandemic, and they have been expounded upon by people who are much smarter than me. But I wanted to talk about one thing today, and give one specific piece of advice.

As best you can, operate from a position of gratitude during the next few weeks.

Crises bring out the best and the worst of people. There’s no question about that. But I want to focus on the best. I want to focus on the selfless efforts of countless individuals who are going to work – putting themselves at risk – because they must. The doctors, first responders, and clerks who are in the line of fire, who are caring for people who may get them sick.

In the Lehigh Valley, a group of volunteers stopped everything they were doing. In under a week, they produced hundreds of masks to protect first responders. Their effort is heroic. And it’s being replicated everywhere, in almost every American community.

Many corporations – normally the villains of our society – have stepped up in a big, big way. There are countless examples. In the Lehigh Valley, we have Fanatics, a company that normally produces uniforms for Major League Baseball. They are pivoting to face masks, and they are absorbing all costs. They’re actually starting with whatever fabrics they have…and that means that they are, quite literally, going to be making masks from material that otherwise would have gone to baseball uniforms. Yes, you may see a Doctor with a pinstripe mask.

As a State Representative, I’ve spent the past two weeks working with government employees to help constituents. I’ve had to warn off ticketing agencies, work with local officials, and in one bizarre moment, tell a contractor that yes, they could finish installing the toilet they were working on in someone’s house. Don’t ask.

But in virtually everyone of those instances, I have been so impressed by the folks who I work with. The government staff (you know, the ones derisively referred to as bureaucrats) have been so, so selfless. My staff has been wonderful. The folks on committees I work with (like Labor and Industry, which deals with unemployment) have been exceeding the bar. We get it. Our work determines unemployment checks, the success or failure of businesses. We have to be more aggressive than ever in helping people. And we will be.

I know this one is has been longer than my entries usually are. That’s because I can’t compress gratitude into less than 500 words. Yes, this is a terrifying time, one that is causing massive spikes in depression, anxiety, and isolation.

But if you need a reason to be hopeful, look at human nature. Look at the way so many people have risen above their usual stations in life to help others. Look at the innovation, entrepreneurship and charitable donations. Look at the outpouring of volunteerism – our local Meals on Wheels told me that they had weeks of drivers, more than they possibly needed, and all because of this.

Yes, people are being scumbags. Yes, people are being exploitative. But for every one bad story, there are ten good ones.

In these dark times, we all need a light. Focus on the good happening. Remember that if you were in trouble, there are people who would risk their own lives to save you, a stranger. Think of all the people from all works of life who are working hard and risking themselves to keep society going, even in this tough time. Let that thought fill you like a warm fire. Humans are good. Corona proves it. And keep that in mind in the tough days and weeks and months ahead.