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Despite drop in deaths by suicide, El Paso experts concerned about mental health impacts of pandemic

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Deaths by suicide among adults have declined during the COVID-19 pandemic in El Paso, but mental health experts are concerned at a rise in suicide attempts.

Not only have attempts at suicide for adults increased during the last few months, but the usual at-risk populations have changed, said Dr. Fabrizzio Delgado, division chief for the psychiatry consult service at Texas Tech Physicians of El Paso.

Delgado said data on the number of attempts at suicide is not being collected, but as a psychiatric consultant at University Medical Center, he has seen an increase in the number of patients coming in as a result of suicide attempts.

Delgado said typical at-risk populations for suicide include unmarried individuals and older white males, but the increase in attempts at suicide are not following the usual patterns.

“What we are seeing is that at this point, it’s more risk factors. It’s young people, older people, women and men and people who are married, people who are single, people who are divorced,” Delgado said. “During this pandemic time we have seen an increase all across the board.”

Delgado also said he has seen an increase of more lethal methods for attempts at suicide, such as gunshots or caustic chemicals during the last few months.

He is also concerned by a rise in firearm sales.

“You can attempt suicide by many means, but having access to firearms can be more lethal,” Delgado said.

Impacts of COVID-19 on mental health

He said recent studies have found the pandemic has created a “perfect storm” because of compounding stress factors leading to an increase in anxiety and depression.

“You can count by the hundreds, probably the thousands, of people that have lost their jobs and that is a big big factor because people feel like a burden or people feel like there’s no hope,” Delgado said. “That has taken a significant toll in people’s moods and well being.”

Dr. Fabrizzio Delgado

He said on top of economic stressors, feelings of isolation and loss of human connections because of social distancing can exacerbate a person’s risk level for developing suicidal ideations.

According to a June survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, younger adults, minorities, essential workers and unpaid adult caregivers reported elevated adverse mental health conditions associated with COVID-19 including symptoms of anxiety disorder and depressive disorder. The CDC reported those groups as having experienced disproportionately worse mental health outcomes, increased substance use and elevated suicidal ideation.

Sarah Martin, child and adolescent division chief at Texas Tech Physicians of El Paso, said attempts at suicide for children under the age of 18 have not changed much since the pandemic.

Martin said in the early months of the pandemic, fewer patients were presenting at El Paso Children’s Hospital with suicide attempts.

“A suicide attempt means that you have done something to move closer to dying, but the fear of dying from COVID had the effect of fewer people presenting to the ER, especially the very first month,” Martin said. “By the third month everything seemed a little closer to usual.”

Deaths by suicide down by half

Martin said the El Paso County Office of the Medical Examiner reported two deaths by suicide for children in the months of March through June, which is comparable to last year.

Ninety-five El Paso adults died by suicide in 2019. Martin said El Paso is on pace for fewer than half that number of deaths by suicide this year.

Martin said it is unclear why there has been a decrease in deaths by suicide during the pandemic.

Delgado said the overall decline in deaths by suicide this year could be attributed to the increase of mental health resources made available to the community following the Aug. 3, 2019, terror attack, where 23 people were killed at the Cielo Vistal Walmart.

Delgado said despite additional resources, some people still have difficulty getting access to mental health services because of increased patient loads for psychiatrists, leading to long waiting lists. Many people also have lost their medical insurance after being laid off because of the pandemic.

“There’s a lot of people who have difficulty (getting) access to psychiatrists,” Delgado said.

Mental health help is available

Emergence Health Network is providing free counseling services through the COVID-19 Mental Health Support Hotline — (915) 779-1800 —  for residents in the El Paso and the Midland/Odessa area with emotional concerns related to the pandemic.

The program is funded through a grant awarded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Texas Health and Human Services.

Gomecindo Lopez, director of the Emergence Health Network community recovery center and licensed professional counselor, oversees the crisis counseling program.

Lopez said the program offers free and anonymous counseling services for anyone who needs it. So far the program is helping about 200 individuals with counseling services. Lopez said the frequency of counseling sessions vary based on the individual’s needs.

“It’s really designed to help you deal with the challenging emotions that these times bring out,” Lopez said.

Tara Blunk, Emergence Health Network crisis and emergency services program manager, said the hotline and program is also designed to deescalate potential attempts at suicide and provide coping skills and resources.

During the months of April through August, the crisis hotline received 1,187 calls. During the five months prior to the pandemic, the hotline answered 913 crisis calls.

Emergence also received 11,462 calls for information and referrals from April through August.

She said while they hope to help people before they attempt suicide, Emergence deployed its Mobile Crisis Outreach Team for 777 calls from April through August and for 36 emergency rescues.

Blunk said emergency rescue means the person started an attempt at suicide, or the crisis specialist did not think the situation could be deescalated over the phone. She said the other deployments relate to individuals where there was a mental health crisis where the individual could have potentially harmed themselves or others inadvertently.

In the five months prior to COVID-19 Emergence, deployed the outreach team for 918 calls and 36 emergency rescues and answered 8,229 calls for information and referrals.

“Our goal is to get them into some type of services before it escalates into an actual attempt,” Blunk said.

The specialists who answer the calls are trained to make that connection, get information and begin the counseling and therapy process to help them feel engaged with another human being.

“I think with this pandemic that’s really what has been a struggle for a lot of people, is that disconnect, and not only feeling alone with mental health concerns and job concerns, but potentially concerns about how they are going to pay the bills or feed themselves,” Blunk said. 

Blunk said EHN, aside from answering local hotline calls, also answers calls for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

She said there have been 908 calls to the national hotline in the El Paso region from April through August, compared to 356 over the previous five-month period.

Blunk said it’s important for people to understand that if they call the crisis hotline, or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and talk with someone, they will realize that there are resources available.

It’s OK to talk about suicide

Delgado said family members who are concerned about a loved one’s mental health during the pandemic should not be afraid to ask them directly about whether they are having thoughts of suicide.

“It’s worse to just brush off the topic and put it under the rug than just talking about it openly and nonjudgmentally and trying to figure out if there’s something we can do about it,” Delgado said.

He said too many people avoid the topic of suicide because of a misconception that it could make a person more likely to attempt suicide.

Sarah Martin

Martin said asking people if they are suicidal actually decreases the likelihood that they are going to commit suicide.

Warning signs that a loved one may be at risk of developing suicidal ideations include becoming more socially withdrawn, avoiding phone calls or social interactions and not enjoying the things they would usually enjoy.

Martin said if someone is concerned that a loved one is going to attempt suicide, they too can call the crisis hotlines.

“You dont have to be the person committing suicide to call a crisis line, you can be the person that wants to help,” Martin said.

Delgado said the pandemic has been difficult for everyone.

“It’s normal that everyone is going through these feelings — it’s normal — but if it becomes unbreakable or unmanageable they definitely need to get some help,” Delgado said.

Reach out for help

Emergence Health Network COVID-19 Mental Health Support Hotline (915) 779-1800 

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800) 273-8255

Cover photo: The crisis hotline at Emergence Health Network provides help to people thinking of committing suicide. (Photo courtesy of Emergence Health Network)

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Elida S. Perez

Elida S. Perez is a longtime community and investigative reporter. Her experience includes work as city government watchdog reporter for the El Paso Times, investigative reporter for El Paso Newspaper Tree and communities reporter with the Salem, Oregon, Statesman Journal.

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