Editor's note: Mental Health Musings (MHM) will focus on community resources and stories throughout the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Trigger warning: This article discusses suicide. Crisis Services operates at 24/7 hotline at 716-834-3131. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7 is 1-800-273-8255.

For the first time in 15 years suicide rates are down in the United States, according to 2019 data from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention released Dec. 22.

The age-adjusted suicide rate went from 14.2 in 2018 to 13.9 in 2019, but, 47,511 Americans died by suicide in 2019. 

“We are still losing far too many lives to this preventable public health issue, which is why our country must act now to make suicide prevention a national priority” according to a media statement released by the National Action Alliance For Suicide Prevention. 

Erie County suicide rates mirror the national trend, said Jessica Pirro, chief executive officer of Crisis Services. 

“We’re definitely happy to see the decrease in suicide rates being reported. I believe that the reason for that is a lot of collective hard work throughout the country with various suicide prevention providers and advocates,” she said.

Reducing the stigma, increasing public awareness on suicide prevention and shifting the conversation to taking care of mental health in addition to your physical health are some methods Pirro credits to the change. 

“It’s really important for us to open that conversation with somebody if you have some concerns or are seeing a change in behavior,” Pirro said. “It can really be a relief for someone to be asked how are they doing or are you okay versus always putting it on the person to reach out for help.” 

There are many ways to help if you suspect someone may be struggling with suicide ideation including calling the hotline for someone else, actively listening to others, learn the five step plan and more. 

While the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted Americans’ mental and behavioral health, including more people screening positive for depression, anxiety, substance use and suicidal thoughts, there has not been data to suggest a rise in suicides. 

But mental health struggles are a risk factor for suicide, Pirro said.  

“The frequency for check-ins now definitely has to increase,” she said. “What we’ve seen with the pandemic is that it reduced those opportunities for people to access what we would call protective factors.” 

Those traditional protective factors can range from meeting with friends to attending support groups.

While the pandemic is not going away anytime soon, Pirro suggests that people with mental health needs or their friends and family think of other ways to build those protective factors in this new normal whether that be a 15-minute phone call during your coffee break, a Zoom meeting with family or keeping a journal of things that make you feel happy that you can lean on during hard times. 

“It’s hard to get motivated and I understand that and we see that, especially if you’re living with depression or another type of mental illness,” she said. “It’s taking it one step at a time and not feeling like you have to change everything at once, but just to think about if this thing could be different for me today — what would that be?” 

It could be just getting up and talking with a friend or going for a 10-minute walk for fresh air, she said. 

“It’s those little steps that build energy and that energy, some encouragement and empowerment,” Pirro said. 

Suicide is preventable and there are resources in the community and nationally. Crisis Services operates at 24/7 hotline at 716-834-3131. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7 is 1-800-273-8255.