man wearing mask

TANNER MONDOK | Herald file

A man wearing a mask walks through Riverside Park in Greenville.

Isolation and social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic can help prevent people from spreading the virus, but the lack of personal interaction can have some unwanted side effects that affect people emotionally.

With less activities available and less chance to interact with others for support, isolation can also provide more opportunities to engage in substance abuse than under normal conditions, which for certain people could ultimately lead to self destructive thoughts, said Dr. Scott Baker, a counselor with the Community Counseling Center of Mercer County.

“We know that isolation increases almost every mental illness, and it also increases substance abuse,” Baker said. “You can have increased depression, suicide thoughts, and when you’re isolated you drink more, you abuse substances more.”

According to the American Association of Suicidology most recent figures, 48,344 people took their own lives in 2018, which amounts to a suicide every 10.9 minutes.

For that reason, the International Association of Suicide Prevention recognizes Sept. 10 as World Suicide Prevention Day – in international notation, which lists the date before the month, today is 10/9.

The association’s goal with World Suicide Prevention Day is to help raise awareness of suicide and suicide prevention worldwide.

Locally, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic this year created the “perfect storm,” said Duane Piccirilli, executive director of the Mahoning County Mental Health and Recovery Board. He also is vice president of the Hermitage Board of Commissioners.

“In a pandemic we’re told to isolate, social distance — these are all things we tell people not to do when they’re depressed,” Piccirilli said.

There is no “one factor” that may drive someone to suicide, Piccirilli said, but rather a cumulation of issues, such as the death of a friend or loved one, legal issues or financial stress, other factors which can become an issue in a pandemic.

However, human interaction and face-to-face meetings can encourage someone to seek help or discover that a friend or loved one has a problem, which is why Piccirilli said tele-health – meeting virtually with a friend or counselor – can help people continue interactions despite the pandemic, while people or small groups are encouraged to talk outside if they need in-person interaction.

Piccirilli said people should enlist friends or relatives to help when they think someone may be considering committing suicide, since it may ultimately save that person’s life.

“The most important thing you can tell someone who’s going through difficult times is ‘they are not alone,’” Piccirilli said. “We need to be there for each other.”

While Baker said setting clients and patients up with electronic or virtual means of communication never became a major issue, the Community Counseling Center continued to have an in-person option available for people who either didn’t have the means and those who preferred live sessions. With the in-person option, the center adopted safety precautions such as social distancing, and followed limited occupancy protocols.

In some cases, people would have tele-counseling in distracting circumstances, such as while shopping or at home with other people present, which detracted from the effectiveness of the sessions.

In some cases, people who seemingly started out fine digitally opted for in-person sessions again, Baker said.

“There were people who were doing okay in tele-health sessions, but sometimes we’d bring them into the clinic and when we’d do the face-to-face, you would see a lot of crisis,” Baker said. “It was like what they were presenting on-screen wasn’t what’s going on in real-life.”

Though his congregation hasn’t met since the fourth Sunday in March, Rev. Russell Penn of the Second Missionary Baptist Church said he hasn’t heard any particular concerns from his church members regarding the pandemic.

However, people have come to Penn in the past with concerns, including marriages challenged by factors such as alcohol abuse or infidelity. Religious counseling requires finding out not just the problem, but the cause, which is why being able to listen is an important quality as a pastor, Penn said.

“When you’re broken, when you’re hurt, you’re vulnerable,” Penn said.

Penn said people are sometimes able to resolve their problems after talking it over. Other times, he uses a three-step process — what’s wrong, what does the Bible say about it, and “why are you still talking to me?”.

But even as a pastor, it is important to tailor each interaction to the individual and their situation. This is why even even though following biblical guidance is important, Penn said he needs to listen to each person’s story without critiquing their decisions.

“When somebody is down, they know they’re down, and they know how they got there, and they may have even had a moment where they say ‘I’m tired’ and go off the deep end,” Penn said.

While Penn believes in the effectiveness of biblical-based counseling, he also has a plan for those who need more immediately attention or therapy. Penn said he keeps track of additional services and resources available for people who may need more specific treatment or assistance.

“I know my limitations. In psychological situations I don’t try to solve psychological issues, or there may be a medication out there the person needs,” he said. “But when you really try to make yourself available, when people know you care and you have an interest in them, they’ll share with you more than anyone else.”

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• Mercer County Behavioral Health Commission’s 24/7 crisis hotline: 724-662-2227

• Mercer County Community Counseling Center’s “Warmline”: 724-981-1741

• National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK