Dr. Joe Thompson

Dr. Joe Thompson

From January 2018 to May 2019, 447 people had been the White River Medical Center’s emergency room related to suicidal ideations or suicide attempts.

The youngest was nine years old, the oldest was 91. Keep in mind those statistics are before the pandemic.

Social distancing may be having fatal outcomes for residents of Independence County struggling with anxiety, depression, stress, or addiction. The additional stress and the isolation of the pandemic are a perfect storm for developing anxiety, depression, and addiction, as well as, piling on more layers of stress for people who were already struggling.

Maggie Beshears, is a Licensed Associate Counselor (LAC) at the Stepping Stone unit located inside White River Medical Center. She spoke to the Batesville Rotary Club during a Zoom online meeting Monday.

People recognize the signs of stress when they see it: A loved one become irritable and impatient. There’s often a drop in grades at school or poor performance at work. Signs of anxiety can include chest pain and shortness of breath, which, ironically enough, are some of the symptoms of COVID-19.

In addition to checking in on loved ones to see where they are at mentally and emotionally, Beshears recommended letting people know when you are struggling with feelings of stress or being overwhelmed.

“Depression is more than just sadness,” Beshears explained.

The symptoms of depression might seem easy to brush-off in the winter. There’s loss of interest in doing things, weight loss or weight gain, insomnia or excessive sleeping. But then there is the inability to concentrate, excessive feelings of guilt, and worthlessness.

Take for example one of the statistics Beshears shared in her slideshow presentation: Suicide rates among men are highest among those 75 and older.

Why might that be?

When someone retires, or loses a spouse or family member, they might feel a lack of purpose. Likewise, if someone’s sole social outlet is church, or chatting with neighbors at a local restaurant, attending local school events: When those things go away, like during the pandemic, it can have an unintentional ripple effect on their well-being.

The build-up of either anxiety and depression can be like sinus congestion, it builds and builds until suddenly you can’t breathe, Beshears explained. The more of it a person can get it out, the better.

“You don’t have to be a clinician to listen,” Beshears said.

Beshears also spoke about some of the myths of suicide, such as talking openly about it might give someone the idea to do it, or that suicide only affects people who have a mental health condition. There’s another myth that most suicides happen without warning, but she said the signs are there, even if they aren’t obvious.

Mental health and substance abuse often go together, but not always.

Beshears told the group that nine out of ten people who are substance abusers say it is their way of self-medicating: A way to cope with stress just to make it through the day.

Dr. Joe Thompson with the Arkansas Center for Health Initiatives said it’s likely everyone has been affected in one way or another by the pandemic.

“The disruption and threat caused by COVID-19 have affected individuals’ personal, familial, faith, and work lives. The steps that we’ve had to take ― not being able to visit our loved ones in nursing homes or hospitals, disruption of our regular church services, not being able to have our usual social experiences ― have been stressful on everyone. The stressors of the pandemic clearly have increased mental health stressors, likely leading to increases in mental health conditions and the abuse of substances. The fact that the pandemic happened during a divisive election year compounded these stresses on individuals,” Thompson said in a email.

It can be mild symptoms, such as anxiety, sleep disruption, or increased alcohol consumption, all the way up to serious, debilitating conditions Thompson said.

Over 81,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States in the 12 months ending in May 2020, the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period, according to recent provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While overdose deaths were already increasing in the months preceding the (COVID-19) pandemic, the latest numbers suggest an acceleration of overdose deaths during the pandemic.

The CDC recommended encouraging improved detection of overdose outbreaks, and earlier interventions for those at risk, including expanding distribution and use of Naloxone and overdose prevention education, expanding awareness and treatment availability.

As a segment on public radio recently pointed out: substance abuse is something people can do alone, especially if they have nowhere to go and nothing to do. These problems didn’t show up overnight and it will take time to work these problems out.

“I encourage everyone to reach out to friends, family members, strangers and just ask, ‘How are you doing?’” Thompson said.

Resources in Batesville include The Stepping Stone and Senior Haven, both offered by WRMC. There’s also Pinnacle Pointe, Life Strategies Counseling, and MidSouth Health Systems. Additionally, the University of Arkansas for Medical Science has AR-Connect. For more information about AR-Connect, e-mail arconnect@uams.edu. The AR-Connect call center is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 501-526-3563 or 800-482-9921. The virtual clinic operates Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Rural Arkansans have plenty of stress in their daily lives, but the pandemic will be remembered as a time as mandatory masks, cancelled church services, and people lost: Both to the virus, and the unintentional victims of social distancing.

[Beshears holds a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Lyon College in Batesville and a master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from John Brown University. Thompson has served as Arkansas surgeon general and leads the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement in its current efforts to address emerging and existing health issues.]

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