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Suicides up in Dane County, mental health experts see link to COVID-19

Suicides up in Dane County, mental health experts see link to COVID-19

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Sarah Henrickson outside with police

Sarah Henrickson, a social worker with Journey Mental Health Center and a member of the Madison Police Department mental health unit, talks with Madison police officers during a joint patrol shift in 2018.

Suicides are up in Dane County this year compared to last year, especially among youth and young adults, with mental health providers seeing a link to COVID-19 and a related uptick in treatment for depression.

The county had 57 suicides this year as of last week, more than the total of 54 for all of last year, according to preliminary data collected by Journey Mental Health Center, said Hannah Flanagan, its director of emergency services .

Among people age 24 and younger, 15 suicides were reported as of mid-September, up from eight for all of last year. Suicides are also up for ages 25 to 38, according to this year’s unofficial data, Flanagan said.

“When people are lonely, it’s really hard to cope,” she said. “The specificity about COVID social distancing and isolation that we’ve come across as contributing factors to the suicides are really new to us this year.”

Calls to Journey’s crisis line are up 15% or more since the pandemic began, with more calls coming from people experiencing situational stress and not severe, persistent mental illness, Flanagan said.

At UnityPoint Health-Meriter’s Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Hospital, demand for treatment increased during the summer, with admissions in July about 25% higher than normal, said Dr. Katie Schmitt, medical director.

Admissions have since declined, partly related to staff reductions stemming from revenue losses because of COVID-19, Schmitt said. Higher staffing levels enabling more admissions are expected within a month or two, she said. Other health care organizations have had staffing cuts, too.

In recent weeks, “there were multiple nights where I could have admitted 10 kids a night,” Schmitt said. “The social isolation, the lack of success in virtual schooling, the lack of ability to connect with staff at school — not one kid comes here that doesn’t have that as a current, significant stressor.”

Crying at night

Dr. Katy Cahill, a pediatrician at Associated Physicians in Madison, said she and other primary care doctors are seeing more teenage patients who are screening positive for depression. Doctors are referring their families to mental health services, providing counseling about sleep, nutrition and exercise, and prescribing more medications for depression or anxiety, she said.

COVID-19 seems to be affecting children of all ages, including early elementary school students, whose parents report more sadness among the children and crying at night, Cahill said.

“I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard parents say that they feel like their children have wilted,” she said. “We definitely have seen an uptick in mental health concerns across all ages, which is really sad and concerning to us.”

While suicides are up in the county compared to 2019, last year’s total of 54 suicides was down from 74 in 2018, 70 in 2017, 71 in 2016 and 68 in 2015. With a five-year average of 67 annual suicides in the county and continuing population growth, this year’s unconfirmed total of 57 so far may not indicate a much higher level.

However, the county’s five-year average for annual suicides among ages 24 and younger is 10, so this year’s 15 suicides in that age group as of mid-September is concerning, experts said.

National studies

Cheryl Wittke, executive director of Safe Communities Madison and Dane County, which coordinates a Zero Suicide Initiative, noted that national studies have pointed to growing mental health concerns among young people during the pandemic.

According to a national survey in June of more than 5,000 adults, 25.5% of those ages 18-24 reported considering suicide in the previous 30 days, compared to 10.7% of respondents overall, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in August.

Among youth ages 10-24, Wisconsin’s suicide rate in 2016-2018 was 11.1 per 100,000 people, compared to the national average of 10.3 per 100,000, according to a CDC report in September.

Wittke cautioned that the preliminary 2020 data for Dane County may not indicate a significant trend.

“The numbers are so small, I would be really hesitant to draw major conclusions,” Wittke said.

Listening can help

Wisconsin’s suicide rate increased 40% from 2000 to 2017, but the state saw a decline in suicides the past two years, according to a state report last month and related statistics. The state had 850 suicides last year, down from 886 in 2018 and 915 in 2017, according to the state Department of Health Services.

Schmitt said health officials should consider the likely connection between mental health problems in youth and the lack of in-person schooling as they make decisions related to COVID-19 in coming months.

“We can’t allow the rate of suicides to go up in a population,” she said. “That just doesn’t seem right to me.”

Flanagan said Journey tries to connect crisis line callers with rental assistance, mental health counseling and other support. Friends and family can also help simply by listening, she said.

“The more aware we are of what’s happening, the easier it’s going to be to continue to have the conversation,” she said. “The more people talk, the less they’re internalizing it, and that’s always a good thing.”

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