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On Tuesday, President Donald Trump sat in the Rose Garden and told Fox News why he wanted to reopen the country for business — against the advice of almost all doctors and health care professionals.
If the US remained on a quasi lockdown due to the coronavirus, Trump said, there would be a recession that would lead to “suicides by the thousands,” with a death toll even higher than those dying from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
Mental health experts were horrified by the blasé way in which the president spoke about the issue. But as Americans grapple with the harsh isolation measures thrust upon them, many experts are worried about an increase in the number of suicides and other mental health–related issues. Many of the people most at risk rely on in-person support groups, and those very groups are now unable to meet in real life.
Typically in times of crisis, such as recessions, war, and natural disasters, people come together. But the coronavirus outbreak is not a typical catastrophe, and coming together is challenging, if not impossible.
Mental health professionals and addiction support groups warn that this public health emergency poses a serious threat to people for whom social contact is a key element of support and treatment. Social distancing and isolation are triggers for people with mental health issues, experts say. Another is the loss or fear of losing one’s job.
“We hear a lot of people saying I feel very alone, I’m very anxious and scared. We’re getting a lot more calls about suicide and suicidal thinking,” Christina Bradley, manager of support programs at the National Alliance on Mental Illness of New York City (NAMI-NYC), told BuzzFeed News. “History shows us that in times of crisis,” we see more mental health-related problems, she said. She said she was very worried about an increase in the number of people killing themselves.
Bradley said that the manner in which the president spoke about suicide “certainly doesn’t help” people who may be thinking about killing themselves.
“It was incredibly irresponsible. It can make people feel they are not truly valued,” she said. “It’s never a good idea to talk about these issues and then not talk about resources for people.”
That is especially true at a time when the virus is beginning to overwhelm hospitals, health care providers, and the various support groups trying to help millions of Americans who have mental health issues that include suicidal ideation, paranoia, intrusive thoughts, anxiety, as well as addictions.
Portland Police said on Tuesday that they were seeing a huge spike in calls involving suicide attempts, while New York announced it was setting up a mental health hotline for people to call if they were feeling overwhelmed by the stress caused by the coronavirus.
Forced to close their doors to help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, most peer support groups are now moving online, which some participants say is helpful, or at least better than nothing. Many people participating in virtual meetings right now say they are thankful for them but admit that they can’t replace the chemistry that happens when they are physically in the same room together.
People who regularly attend peer support groups told BuzzFeed News they were worried about the impact of their closing. David, Laura, and Robert — all of whom spoke to BuzzFeed News on the condition that pseudonyms be used instead of their real names — are some of the hundreds of thousands of Americans now facing an uncertain new reality as the coronavirus pandemic deepens and their support networks are disrupted.
The attendance at David’s Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings began to decrease two weeks ago, he said. The Brooklyn school where one of his regular groups met closed its doors. Then the church asked them to pause their meetings. And then every other location did the same. The closures are temporary, but there is no sense of when they might reopen.
The same thing happened to Laura’s Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings in Los Angeles and Robert’s suicide-prevention group in Manhattan.
Robert, an entrepreneur who attempted suicide three years ago, found out his group had been moved online when he showed up at its usual meeting place to find a note taped to the door. Seeing that “made me feel a little lost,” he said.
Mental health experts are particularly worried about people feeling that events are completely out of their control. “There’s a lack of clarity, there’s a lack of certainty and there’s a lack of control. And that is a recipe for anxiety,” Dr. David Rosmarin, director of the Center for Anxiety and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, told BuzzFeed News. “Most people in our culture struggle with being able to tolerate a lack of control and a lack of knowledge on a good day. And here we have some bad days, where we really don’t know.”
Reagan Reed, executive director of New York’s Inter-Group Association of AA, said that the coronavirus-related restrictions will pose serious challenges for people with alcohol addictions, who often don’t do well when alone.
“Alcoholics are really used to in-person communication and it’s really imperative that alcoholics actually physically get up, leave their house, go to a meeting, and sit down in a chair because we’re inherently isolating people,” she told BuzzFeed News. Moreover, she added, “alcoholics are particularly prone to problems outside of alcohol, whether that be anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder.”
David, a musician with more than eight years of sobriety, told BuzzFeed News that it was the face-to-face support he got from others with alcohol and drug addictions when he needed it most that saved his life.
“There was a moment I said, ‘I’m fucked and I don’t know what to do.’ I was 24 years old and I was ready to kill myself,” he said. Then he found an AA meeting he could go to and a sponsor who was willing to meet him anywhere, anytime. “To this day, I haven’t shoved a needle in my arm or taken a drink,” he said.
As things are now, support groups, sponsors, and therapists are no longer able to meet in person. But David said that doesn’t mean they are alone. “For people who are really desperate, there will still be resources, albeit they look different than they’ve ever looked,” he said.
NAMI-NYC, AA, NA, the American Foundation For Suicide Prevention (AFSP), Schizophrenia and Related Disorders Alliance of America (SARDAA), and other support groups, as well as therapists, are all keeping their usual phone hotlines open. But they are also creating new ways to connect, including conference call meetings, Zoom video groups, and Google Hangouts.
Angel White of SARDAA told BuzzFeed News that her organization has been using conference calls and Facebook groups to reach out to people in need. It even hosted an entire, daylong event online that was meant to be held in Florida last weekend but had to be canceled.
Rosmarin said the Center for Anxiety’s staff of 30 is conducting about 300 to 350 sessions per week, about 98% of which are done virtually.
Reed said virtual AA meetings, which have been organized on a somewhat ad hoc basis in recent weeks, are already wildly popular, with people calling in not only from New York’s five boroughs but from cities across the US.
“It is working. It’s not ideal, but you still can have a connection, remotely,” she said. “For example, a young woman logged into a remote meeting on Thursday. She had four days sober and had never been to an AA meeting before. And another woman offered to sponsor her over the Zoom meeting and she’s still sober. And she’s just been using the remote AA meetings and contacting the people who have been in the meetings with her.”
Soon, the New York Inter-Group Association of AA will launch a Zoom center where it can host 50 virtual meetings every hour with up to 1,000 participants per meeting.
Actor Ashley Tisdale shared on Twitter recently that her husband, musician Christopher French, was making use of new virtual AA groups. “Thank you #AlcoholicsAnonymous for having a streaming service at your meetings. My husband was able to stream his favorite meeting. Anyone else who doesn’t feel great about leaving the house check out the zoom app,” she tweeted.
French responded with a tweet of his own, saying, “Yeah, it’s kind of an amazing resource to be able to connect with 12-step recovery meetings from home.” He added a link to a directory of online meetings.
David said he participated in a virtual meeting last Saturday and another on Sunday in which he was the moderator. One meeting he was a part of last week was so popular that the site crashed when more than 1,000 people joined in at once.
“People from the Midwest, West Coast, people up in the Northeast who had never even been to New York” joined, David said. “One woman was so happy to be doing this. She was from Detroit. She was going through the same thing as us.”
David said there are some things the virtual meetings can’t replicate, however.
“If you’re in a physical space and someone raises their hand and this person is in pain, and they’re describing something I’ve gone through a couple of years ago, at the end of the meeting I might have missed their name but I know who it is,” he said. “I look over and when we stand up to close the meeting, I can make a beeline to that person and say, ‘Hey man, I know you’re going through this difficult situation and I went through the same thing a few years ago.’”
“Something happens when one alcoholic talks face-to-face to another,” he said. “It’s a magic you can’t bottle up and sell.”
Robert, who has attended a virtual suicide support group, felt similarly. He said the format “felt distant” but with no alternative right now he would continue using it.
A spokesperson for NA in Los Angeles told BuzzFeed News that virtual meetings are becoming popular with that organization as well. He said just one of the many virtual groups had 6,000 members participating.
Still, he said, some NA members really need in-person meetings, and so a few remain open, although they are sparsely attended. The members who go to them meet in groups of 10 people or less, the NA spokesperson said, and they are practicing social distancing, including setting chairs far apart from each other and not doing some of the typical exercises that include physical touching. They’re also ditching the refreshments.
Basically, the spokesperson said, they’re doing “the same thing we’d be doing in a workplace.”
But across the country, more and more people in need are turning to their phones and laptops to get help. And that’s great, said Stephanie Cogen, program director at the International OCD Foundation, which helps those affected by obsessive-compulsive disorder and related disorders find support. But that doesn’t allow for everyone to easily get the help they need.
“A lot of folks who didn’t do teletherapy before are struggling to learn how to do it now,” Cogen said. “There’s a lot of software available for that. But if you’ve never done it before I think that’s a skill that people are struggling to onboard themselves to use in a very quick manner.”
“We’re hoping to host some webinars to help train people on that,” she added.
Reed, of the New York Inter-Group Association of AA, agreed, saying that the shift to virtual meetings is likely to be difficult for one vulnerable group in particular.
“It’s the older folks who I’m particularly worried about, who don’t have computers, who are technologically challenged. And there are a lot of them,” Reed said. “These are the people who we need to protect right now and who are at the highest risk of coming down with this virus [and] who it’s going to be the hardest for.”
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Other international suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org.