At the age of 11 was the first time I was exposed to suicide. A young man from our small rural church was reported missing. The men in our community gathered together to search for him, and my father found him. He had taken his life. Almost 5 decades have passed and suicide has continued to be part of my life through various avenues; the attempts of family members, the loss of a family member to suicide, numerous clients who have struggled with despair and suicidal ideation, and the poignant journey of traveling with families who are learning to live with these tragic losses. Fast forward to fall 2020 and suicide is still a grave concern.
A year ago, most of us had not heard the acronym - COVID-19. Today it is the topic of conversations especially as we transition back to school and work places. The landscape of social interaction has been altered. In Canada, we had never experienced a global pandemic and its consequences; we were unable to organize to change in a satisfactory way because change occurred frequently with little warning and minimal personal control. We could only react, and many experienced crisis like job loss.
Two things we know occurs in the aftermath of a disaster - a baby boom (memes suggest the babies born next spring might be referred to as Zoomers or Coronials), and an increase in mental health concerns. The Canadian Poverty Institute has completed a thorough review of the COVID 19’s impact on mental health to date. See report here.
Their research revealed an increase in anxiety from 5-20% and depression from 4-10%. The Distress Centre in Calgary reported a 94% increase in calls in June of 2020 compared to June of 2019. There has also been an increase in suicide related contacts. Research suggests that persons who have experienced reduced income or unemployment, have pre-existing mental health conditions or are front line workers are at a higher risk of suicidal thoughts and attempts. Other psycho-social factors impacting suicidal ideation and attempts are concern for family members, self isolation, family violence, and social media and news exposure. Social media/news, family violence and loss of routine increase concern for children, and the elderly or convalesced persons were also labelled as high risk groups. The events that led to racism awareness superimposed further stress on an already vulnerable society even though racism reduction is also a grave concern.
This information suggests that all of us have been impacted or know someone who may have been negatively impacted by COVID 19. Loving our neighbour at this time involves checking with those we know and asking how they are doing. If you suspect someone may be at risk of harming themselves, it is important to ask specific questions. Emotions deemed concerning are despair, anger and loneliness. If persons seem to be withdrawing, or are quarantining check in to see how they are coping. Connection with another person even if it is electronic can make a significant difference in someone’s experience of isolation.
As for ourselves and family, recognizing and implementing resiliency based practices help maintain our wellness and perseverance.
First, manage our expectations of self and others. The increased stress means most people are probably functioning 5-10% below normal capacity - be charitable - we are all in this together.
Second, balance our activities/work with ones that restore like exercise, play, prayer, or contemplation.
Third, establishing rituals that create routine and predictability such as family game night, attending mass, devotional or reading, or pizza nights. When change is unpredictable without an identifiable end - rituals/routines helps us stay oriented and future focused.
Fourthly, minimize manageable stressors such as reducing social media and news exposure.
Finally, if you notice that yourself or someone close to you seems persistently stressed, please consider connecting with professional resources. These include but are not limited to a spiritual director, your pastor, an agency like Catholic Family Services (Rapid Access Counselling program), The Distress Centre or a therapist in private practice (or you can go to Psychology Today and put in your preferences for a therapist and a list is generated).
Today, on World Suicide Prevention Day, let us pray that through love of neighbour we can continue to interrupt the desire that suicide is a solution to overwhelming change and stress. May God look with mercy on all whose afflictions bring them distress, confusion and isolation, and may God give to them understanding helpers and the willingness to accept help.
Catholics across the Diocese of Calgary are looking for ways to de-stress from the distress. Adjusting to the new normal foisted on the global community by COVID-19, a disease that didn’t even have a name just weeks ago, thousands are live-streaming daily and Sunday masses. Others turn to traditional Catholic prayers like the rosary and Divine Mercy chaplet, seeking grace for the dead, the sick, their families and caregivers.
Sr. Donna Marie Perry, FCJ, knows the news is bad. But the Calgary-based social worker and psychotherapist wants people to remember that the steps we take to stay “physically healthy should also include a focus on our mental and spiritual well-being.”
That earns a quick nod from Dr. Peter Doherty, an associate professor of psychology and family studies at St. Mary’s University in Calgary. Dr. Doherty, whose work focuses on the integration of psychology and spirituality, agrees people should take mental health issues seriously in times of crisis.
Mental health matters
Sr. Perry is the clinical director of Insight Counselling and Therapy Centre. This not-for-profit offers long-term counselling at sliding rates as low as $5 a visit. Insight delivers care through practicum students supervised by Sr. Perry. All of the students are finishing master of counselling programs with various universities. The organization is one of the community-based organizations that benefits from Together in Action, an annual fundraising campaign by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Calgary. Given the imperatives of “social distancing” during the pandemic, Insight’s students currently offer support via phone.
Sr. Perry herself lives in a seniors’ residence with strict pandemic protocols. With St. Mary’s University shuttered, Dr. Doherty is also staying close to home. They offered readers of Faithfully some ideas about how to make mental health a priority in trying times.
Stay informed. Make healthy choices. “Fear is a healthy response to the situation, and it makes sense to stay informed. But let’s be smart about how much news we watch and read,” says Sr. Perry. She recommends people listen to morning updates and check in again in the afternoon or evening. A 24-hour news cycle includes a lot of recycled information and “when you’re hearing the same news all the time that increases stress,” says Sr. Perry.
Hoarding items as basic as toilet paper shows “an emotional response to the crisis that doesn’t make rational sense,” adds Dr. Doherty. He also shakes his head when he sees examples of people not following recommendations for safe social interaction.
One of the healthiest ideas he’s seen to date suggests people “not act as if you’re afraid of getting the virus. Instead, act as if you are trying to protect other people from getting it. The best information we have says most people who get this virus will survive. But we need to protect those who are vulnerable.” People who follow that advice should take mental comfort in knowing they are doing the right thing, says Dr. Doherty.
Strengthen family ties. The social distancing protocols recommended by public health officials isolate family units. Sr. Perry’s urges families to use the time to your family’s advantage. Play games. Share meals. Go for walks where you can be 2 m from other people. If you have a backyard, use it.
Reach out. “It’s like we are disconnected, together,” says Dr. Doherty. Since our own mental health benefits when we interact with others, this is a good time to phone, text, email, FaceTime or Skype with people we haven’t heard from in a while, “especially if we know people who might be alone.”
This is also a good time to reach out to people whom we’ve hurt and vice versa. The words, “I forgive you,” are a way to free ourselves from the heavy, energy-sapping emotional burdens we carry when we haven’t let go of real or imagined hurts, says Dr. Doherty. This kind of pain bleeds into how we interact with others and how we handle strife. “It can keep us from handling unrelated situations well.”
Pray. Pray together. Dr. Doherty encourages people of faith to use prayer as a conduit to deeper conversion. When we pray for the isolated, for those who’ve lost jobs and for people on the front lines of health care, prayer becomes a way to reach past ourselves to Christ, says Dr. Doherty. This can be helpful for people who grieve the fact that they cannot attend mass to receive the Eucharist.
Family prayer is also helpful, says Sr. Perry. Praying for others teaches children that prayer is a way of helping others—and it reminds adults of the same thing. “It’s really important not to get caught up in ‘self’ and to keep looking outward,” says Sr. Perry.
“Prayer can be very relaxing, too,” notes Sr. Perry. Following the Jesuit tradition of her charism, she uses her evening prayers “to look back on the day, to think about what went well and what didn’t go as well and to give thanks to God for the day.”
She’s added more Hail Marys to her day by reciting that prayer while she lathers her soapy hands for the requisite 20 seconds (as recommended by public health), prior to rinsing off the soap with water. Sr. Perry says the Hail Mary is a good replacement for singing the ABCs or Happy Birthday songs.
Listen. Talk. Be kind.
People manage stress differently. If you see more anger than you’re used to, remember that unresolved fear may be expressed as anger, explains Sr. Perry. She encourages parents to listen when their kids talk about their fears. Be open to their questions and offer age-appropriate responses. “Let them know that you don’t know everything, but you will figure it out together.”
Also, remember that children internalize messages from the external world and believe that everything that happens relates to them. It’s a matter of maturity, not selfishness, says Sr. Perry. “Children internalize information to make sense of their environment with limited experience. They use that information to make decisions about themselves and the world. They build what we call a script, and we live out of those childhood beliefs.”
Laugh often. Love much. With so much doom and gloom, Sr. Perry suggests people who are feeling sad work some comedy into their screen time.
She and Dr. Doherty admit they are especially worried about individuals and families who did not go into the current pandemic in strong mental health. “Not all families are healthy,” says Sr. Perry. She urges people who see others struggling to reach out with kindness. Where appropriate, you can also recommend they access support from community-based organizations.
Calgary Distress Centre Helpline: 403-266-HELP (4357)
Written by Joy Gregory for Faithfully
Catholic Pastoral Centre Staff and Guest Writers