Last Friday, The NAN Project Peer Coordinators Lizzie MacLellan and Shilpa Thirukkovalur sat down to speak virtually with Mayor of Cambridge Sumbul Siddiqui and psychiatrist Dr. Camilo Acuna from the Cambridge Health Alliance about suicide prevention, mental health, and COVID-19. Broadcast live on several social media channels, this conversation with local experts was meant to destigmatize mental illness and recognize the role each individual can play in preventing the suicide of a young person as part of the city of Cambridge’s Suicide Prevention Month efforts.
Mayor Siddiqui explains that the importance of this conversation is even more critical now: as we enter the seventh month of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are experiencing heightened anxiety and worsening depression due to social isolation, financial instability, and health concerns. Some of us may be experiencing these symptoms for the first time in our lives. The Center for Disease Control recently reported that a quarter of young adults ages 18 to 24 have seriously considered suicide during this pandemic.
When asked to weigh in on the impact of COVID-19 on young folks’ mental health, Lizzie refers to what we call “risk factors,” attributes or traits that make a person more likely to consider suicide. Lizzie explains that certain risk factors have been heightened by the pandemic, such as loneliness, aimlessness, and instability — especially for high school students, who are missing out on certain rites of passage and other coming-of-age experiences, now that many schools have gone remote. Lizzie also explains that the behavior of a person at risk might look different in COVID-times. The NAN Project teaches students to look out for a friend who is isolating from others. While we are all isolating for our physical safety, this might instead look like not showing up for virtual hangouts, not answering phone calls or texts, or an uncharacteristic absence from social media.
Lizzie advises viewers to look out for drastic changes in mood, behavior, or appearance, and to reach out right away to a person displaying these warning signs of suicide.
“Ask the question,” Lizzie insists, and what she means is it is vitally importantto ask a young person directly if they are thinking about suicide if you notice some of the warning signs. Most untrained individuals are hesitant to mention suicide to a young person in their life, for fear of putting the idea in the person’s head. The NAN Project teaches students that asking about suicide will instead give the struggling person an opportunity to open up about what they are feeling, which is the first step to getting support. The next step, Lizzie advises, is to take that information to a trusted adult.
On identifying a trusted adult, Shilpa says this is simply someone who makes the young person feel heard, validated, and safe. For Shilpa, this adult was her father. In a case where a young person feels uncomfortable to bring up a mental health concern with a parent, Shilpa suggests approaching a teacher, a coach, or the school guidance counselor.
Therapy is something this trusted adult might suggest. Dr. Acuna discusses the myriad of telehealth options available during the COVID-19 pandemic. He says he is surprised how many young people have found this mode of therapy helpful — maybe because it is less intimidating for a youth to try therapy from the comfort of their bedroom, rather than in the unfamiliar environment of the therapist’s office. Of course he notes that teletherapy comes with its own accessibility issues, such as young folks not having access to a stable internet connection or a private place to talk.
Mayor Siddiqui asks her guests to suggest how LGBT youth and youths of color might go about finding a therapist who fits their needs. Shilpa says that while there aren’t enough therapists of marginalized groups, it is important for young people to find a therapist who respects their identity and their culture.
“It’s not something you should compromise when looking for care,” Shilpa says. “Many therapists are still learning, and are willing to educate themselves – as long as the respect is there.”
“It’s something the field still needs to work on,” Dr. Acuna agrees. “There’s a long legacy of racism, of misogyny, of homophobia and transphobia in the medical system, and mental health Is certainly not an exception, unfortunately.” Dr. Acuna advises young people to feel empowered to change providers until they find someone who makes them feel safe.
Given the undeniable importance of mental healthcare, the speakers emphasize that you don’t have to be a mental health professional to support someone at risk for suicide.
“Suicide prevention is something we can all do – you don’t have to have all the answers,” Lizzie says. A young person supporting their friend can make a call for them to a suicide hotline or a mental health professional, walk with them down to the school’s guidance office, or simply be with them while they make their own plan to reach out to an adult. Further, we can all educate ourselves about the signs and symptoms of a mental health concern, as well as work to become more comfortable discussing mental health.
Lizzie uses the example of someone with a broken arm: people would show sympathy, help them carry their bags, ask how they’re doing or what they need — without judgement.
“Mental health and suicide don’t have to be different,” she says.
Mayor Siddiqui and her guest speakers leave viewers with an important message: if you are struggling, you are not alone, you are cared for, and help is available.
The full video is available to watch here.