The Mental Health Toll of Disasters

In the last few months, people around the world have been mourning the death of celebrities by their own hand. Just days after the news of Kate Spade’s suicide rocked the fashion world, Anthony Bourdain’s untimely end sent shock waves through food lovers across the world.

These were not the first high-profile suicides to take the world by surprise, and they will not be the last. But these tragic deaths have garnered a great deal of global attention, helping to shine a spotlight on the dangers of suicide.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death overall in the United States, claiming almost 45,000 lives each year — an average of 123 suicides a day. It’s also the second leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10 and 34, and the fourth leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 35 and 54. Though suicide disproportionately kills white males, anyone can have thoughts of suicide, and the tragedies of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain prove that fame and wealth do not necessarily equate with happiness. And, unfortunately, thoughts of suicide can also often be exacerbated by difficult situations.

As NPR reported, when Hurricane Irma passed through the Florida Keys, she left a trail of devastation in her wake. Homes were destroyed; lives were uprooted. For many, that devastation was mental as well as physical. Though the rebuilding of the physical infrastructure is well under way, not enough attention has been paid to repairing the damaged psyches.

The Florida Keys were severely affected by the deadly storm, and the suicide rate this year is roughly double the average for the area — and this was a county that already suffered from a higher-than-normal suicide rate.

To make matters worse, suicide catches on — a phenomenon known as suicide contagion has impacted the rise of suicide rates for years.

Of those who commit suicide, 90 percent have an underlying mental disorder. Unfortunately, too few reach out for support, and those that do reach out often face difficulties accessing care.

This paints a grim picture, but there is hope.

If you or a loved one is struggling with feelings of depression and thoughts of suicide, it’s important to seek help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) is a 24/7 suicide prevention network that anyone in emotional distress can call.

Having a hotline like this is crucial, but it’s not sufficient. For those with depression, anxiety or other mental disorders, it’s important to speak regularly with a therapist or counselor. That’s why the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides you with a listening ear when you need it most, by routing you through a local crisis center.

In the Keys, according to the NPR article, an additional exacerbating factor could be its remote and isolated location where access to an appropriately matched therapist may be nearly impossible. Through mobile resources like the new mental health app, LARKR, individuals can access lifesaving therapy without leaving their homes, thus also avoiding the stigma of seeking help — a stigma that is lessening, but unfortunately still exists.

To stem this epidemic of suicide, we need to ensure that help is available to anyone who needs it, when they need it. There is no such thing as being too independent to seek out therapy. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but of strength.

By bringing this conversation out into the open, we can offer increased support to those who are suffering, particularly those who we know are dealing with difficult times, such as those brought on by Hurricane Irma.

It’s important to remember that mental health is just as affected by natural disasters as physical health. When something looks like it’s fixed on the outside, that doesn’t mean everything is operating smoothly on the inside. To handle the mental health toll that stressful events take, and to prevent future suicides, we need to have accessible mental health care available to everyone.

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