Suicides increased substantially in Wilkes County during the first four months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Eight suicides have occurred in Wilkes since March 1, said Wilkes Emergency Medical Services Director Tim Pennington, adding that the majority were in May and June.

“I can’t recall ever seeing that many” in that period of time in Wilkes, said Pennington, employed by Wilkes EMS since 1996.

He said the average age of the eight people who died from suicide was 49 ½. They included seven men and one woman. “The situations were all different,” including how they died. “They didn’t seem to have that much in common.”

The Wilkes Sheriff’s Office alone responded to five suicides in 2018 and three in 2019. This only covers areas outside Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro, but it would likely be the majority.

Pennington said he and Wilkes County Health Department Director Rachel Willard and others in the health field in Wilkes are talking about mental health resources available to people at risk of suicide and how to get this information to the public.

“We’re talking about distributing posters and other ways of advertising this information.”

Information from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) indicates that the statewide suicide death rate so far in 2020 is equivalent to the prior year’s rate, said Ronda Cox, chief population health officer for Asheville-based Vaya Health.

Vaya oversees public funding of behavioral health care in Wilkes and 22 other western North Carolina counties as a state-designated local management entity – managed care organization.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Vaya has offered free online training for recognizing warning signs of suicide, offering hope and encouraging treatment. Vaya’s Access to Care line, available 24/7 for people in crisis, is 800-849-6127.

Cox said national psychological and psychiatric resources have cited a potential spike in suicides post-COVID as a result of the cumulative impact of isolation related to quarantine and less access to faith communities and social supports. She said there also is stress from economic loss.

She cited a feeling of not being able to “escape” the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Cox said it weighs especially heavily on people who already struggle with substance dependence.

 “This impact can be felt by healthcare workers on the front line, individuals who have lost their homes or businesses, people who lost healthcare coverage and those navigating a chronic healthcare crisis. In other words, it can touch any of us if circumstances align.”

Cox said weekly attendance at religious services has been associated with a five-fold lower suicide rate compared with those who do not attend. “The effects of closing churches and community centers may further contribute to social isolation and hence suicide. This may be an opportunity for Wilkes County faith communities to help.”

She added that tele mental health and physical health are options in Wilkes.

Cox emphasized the importance of communities talking openly about suicide in a compassionate way.

DHHS provides the Hope4NC Helpline (1-855-587-3463), which connects North Carolinians to mental health supports to help them cope and build resilience during times of crisis, said Kelly Haight Connor, DHHS communications manager.

Calls to Hope4NC roll to a local Vaya call center for Wilkes residents. It’s staffed 24/7.

DHHS also has the Hope4Healers Helpline (919-226-2002), a new initiative in partnership with the North Carolina Psychological Foundation that Connor said is designed to help people deal with the stress of being on the front lines of the state’s COVID-19 response. It provides mental health and resilience supports for health care professionals, emergency medical specialists, first responders and others who work in health care settings, as well as their families.

The national suicide prevention hotline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and the online chat is at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/. Suicide prevention resources for youths are at itsok2ask.com.

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