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We can all help prevent suicide. A therapist explains how.

How to support loved ones, when to seek help

By Gina DiPietro
Novant Health

While the coronavirus has taken a physical toll on many, the pandemic can also affect a person’s mental health. Whether it’s the loss of a job, anxiety around virtual learning or fear of getting sick — many people are juggling more during COVID-19. Parents may have it the toughest as they manage homeschooling and working from home.

Numbers around anxiety and depression have tripled from previous measures, according to the N.C. Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Substance Abuse Services.

So, how can people cope with upheaval and uncertainty in a healthy way? And when is it time to seek help? Mindy France, a behavioral health therapist at Novant Health, shared her expertise on how to cope in uncertain times.

What are you seeing as you talk to patients?

We are definitely noticing a lot more anxiety, depression and even substance abuse. I think it has a lot to do with the added stressors that people are experiencing. Also, just the overall stress of the pandemic itself. Some people are afraid to leave their house and with the new way of living — masking and social distancing — that can be a huge stressor for people who are extroverts. They like to be around a lot of people and stay busy, and now they’re confined. Also, stress can be a catalyst for a lot of folks who have mental illness.

What are healthy ways to cope when we’re overwhelmed?

Healthy coping skills mean implementing healthy habits into your everyday life — exercise, meditation, eating healthy and getting enough sleep. If you’re not able to sleep because of anxiety, try some breathing techniques or using imagery to help you rest. It’s also important to check in with yourself. Sometimes that means stepping away and listening to music or taking time to do something you enjoy.

What should you watch out for in a friend or loved one’s behaviors?

I think what to watch for is a change in behavior, in the pattern of how a person typically acts. If it’s your child, for instance, you might notice a decline in their school grades, they could be acting out, maybe they’re not socializing as much or are withdrawing from friends and family. With adults, you might notice increased drinking or a change in mood. Perhaps they’re angry more often or acting withdrawn.

Looking out for symptoms of depression, including feelings of sadness, emptiness or hopelessness, as well loss of interest in most or all normal activities, is also critical when it comes to supporting the people around you. Close to 800,000 people die by suicide annually, according to the World Health Organization. While depression may require long-term treatment, suicides are preventable and showing your support for someone who is going through a tough time can save lives.

What’s the best way to support someone?

You don’t want to minimize people’s feelings. Don’t be dismissive. You want to acknowledge what they’re feeling and empathize with them. Say, ‘I can understand why you feel that way.’ But also acknowledge that there is a brighter side, they can feel better and create an action plan together.

It’s important to keep in mind that everyone is different. Approaching family members or loved ones can be a challenge, especially when folks aren’t receptive to a suggestion to get help. I suggest having a calm conversation. Do not bring it up in a time that’s heated, or a moment of passion where people may get angry. Wait until they calm down and say, ‘Hey, can we talk about this?’ And suggest they call a help line or schedule an appointment to speak with someone. Let them know there are resources to help. Try to be there for them and show support in a way that they can receive it.

With children, I would recommend either getting them treatment or get them in for an assessment, an evaluation. Ask their teacher questions about their behavior and overall demeanor. It’s important to speak to the adults around them.

How is mental health addressed with Novant Health patients?

Anytime a patient comes in for an annual visit, such as a physical, primary care or OB-GYN appointment, they answer a series of questions about depression. This depression screening, known as PHQ-9, is an important tool that we use to gauge people’s mental health. It gives us a good idea as health care professionals to know if someone should be referred to a behavioral health therapist and we have a real sense that it has saved lives.

In addition to this depression screening, Novant Health has a free behavioral health help line. Anyone in the community, regardless of if they are a patient or not, can call 1-800-718-3550 and speak to a therapist at any time of the day. If that person needs urgent care or emergency services, the therapist will assist them with making a plan to get the care they need.