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The Second Pandemic: Waves of Anxiety, Depression and Suicidal Ideation

by | Oct 17, 2020 | Davidson Lifeline, News, Voices of Davidson

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By Jaletta Albright Desmond, Davidson LifeLine President

October 2020

Since the pandemic began breaking across the U.S., both ending and upending lives, many mental health experts and advocates have been discussing the possible second pandemic, the one we feared but didn’t have more than anecdotal data to prove: the mental health pandemic that could rise during COVID-19.

“As a mental health provider, I see many individuals who present with suicidal thoughts,” licensed social worker Jeannine Bodner wrote in an email last spring. “It is more common than one would think.” 

Anecdotally and tragically, I’ve also seen an increase in the number of people who recently lost a loved one who asked about the suicide loss support groups I co-facilitate.   

Unfortunately, surveys released in the last few months are confirming the concerns about mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, extreme stress, and/or suicidal ideation. (See info below the blog for survey details).

“We had no idea that our lives as we knew them would dramatically change in a very brief period of time,” Bodner wrote in the email. “The aftermath, the anxiety, fear, loss of control, isolation and grief have caused tremendous psychological stress.” 

That psychological stress can be deadly. More than a quarter of teens surveyed by Harris Poll said “contemplating suicide” was a concern for them personally. That number was even higher at 34% for teens who didn’t consider themselves “resilient.”

“When it comes to suicidality, teens are much more impulsive and irrational,” wrote Bodner. “Their brains are not fully developed. Therefore, their reasoning is not the same as a healthy adult with fully developed frontal lobes. Teens also have more activity…in the emotional center of the brain, which is believed to make their emotions much more reactive.”

Bodner, like other counselors and therapists, is there to help patients—teens and adults—process emotions, including the most difficult ones. I asked what she says to a young person who is suicidal or hopeless—she said she gives them the space to feel what they are feeling and says, “The pain is there—you can hold it—but this can subside, maybe not tomorrow, maybe not tonight.” No false-sounding promises but a clear-eyed assurance and hope that, with effort and support, it will get better eventually.

I know teens may be scared to seek help, picturing being carted off to a hospital and put in a padded room. I asked Bodner, who has experience working in a psychiatric hospital, how she handles those false assumptions with a suicidal teen. “I find that acknowledging the fear, which can be significant, is important,” said Bodner. “I ask them what their fears or understanding of a psychiatric hospitalization are, and address any misconceptions. Also, I let them know that they will be part of the process and explain in concrete terms what the steps might be.” She also assures them they will return to seeing her after they complete in-patient treatment. 

There is growing recognition in the field of mental health that, for some patients, suicidality is a chronic condition that can be treated differently than emergency situations. This summer I attended a weekend webinar hosted by the American Association of Suicidology with speakers from all over the world. In a session called, When Suicidal Thoughts Persist: Treating Chronic Ideation, a University of Denver graduate school professor, Stacey Freedenthal, Ph.D., LCSW, said hospitalization can sometimes have negative effects for chronic-ideation patients. Dr. Freedenthal, author of Helping the Suicidal Person: Tips and Techniques for Professionals, said a mental health professional can work with a patient struggling with chronic suicidal ideation to “foster acceptance and observation of suicidal thoughts,” adding, “You can’t control what thoughts come to you. That neuro pathway has been paved—not a path but a freeway. Accepting suicidal thoughts doesn’t mean accepting suicidal actions, but accepting it as a part of the process, life, without taking action.” The out-patient care in these cases is extensive, of course, including—among many efforts—family involvement, increased therapy sessions, and a suicide safety plan. (See This sounded new and slightly terrifying to me, yet the goal is clear: accepting that suicidal thoughts can be in one’s mind without being part of real and literal action.   

The most important thing to know is that it’s never good to stay silent about suicidal thoughts—your own or someone else’s. It can be scary or intimidating for teens—and even adults—to get help for someone else who seems to be struggling with suicidal ideation. Bodner and I spoke about why people sometimes don’t take the next step and tell an adult or a health care professional. “There’s something about a ‘group think’ for not speaking up,” she said. “They think, ‘It isn’t my business. If I tell somebody, I might be going behind their back.’

“Which,” Bodner adds, “is exactly what they should be doing!” 

“What would you say to convince teens to speak up about a friend?” I asked Bodner. 

“If they ever let you know—just please, please help them out,” she said emphatically. “Reach out to a parent, a teacher. Reach out to somebody more mature than just another friend.”

“And let them know, there is help available. A (suicidal) friend may thank them for looking out for them that way.”


Recent statistics

Survey results of 5,4 12 adults released by the CDC and administered by Qualtrics in June 2020: 

  • one quarter of individuals ages 18-24 had seriously considered suicide in the 30 days leading up to the June survey. 
  • nearly one in five ages of 25-44 had also thought seriously about dying by suicide.

Survey results of 1,516 teens ages 13-19, conducted by the Harris Poll in May 2020 and commissioned by the National 4-H Council*:

  • 7 in 10 teens have experienced struggles with mental health during COVID.
  • 67% of those surveyed feel pressure from others to “pretend to feel better than they do not to worry anyone” 
  • 7 in 10 teens have experienced struggles with mental health during COVID.
  • 65% feel pressure to deal with their feelings on their own. 
  • Only 1 in 3 gave themselves an “A” for their mental health during COVID. 
  • 81% of teens are saying, “it’s time for Americans to talk more openly and honestly about mental health issues in this country.”
*[The Harris Poll/4-H poll was trying to determine how COVID was affecting teens’ mental health and was exploring the role resilience plays in how teens cope. They defined “resilient teens” as those who self-reported as resilient. 230 of respondents were 4-H members while the rest were non-members.]

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