NEW BEDFORD — Bristol County is already experiencing a rise in the number of deaths by suicide compared to this time in previous years, according to statistics provided by a local prevention group.
While it can’t be said for sure, the coronavirus pandemic could play a role because of the physical and social isolation, job loss, financial difficulties and the general stress and anxiety of navigating through this time, mounding on top of mental health difficulties or other stressors people were already dealing with.
Rev. David Lima, chairperson of the Greater New Bedford Suicide Prevention Coalition, said as of statistics provided by the Bristol County District Attorney’s office May 15, 29 people in Bristol County died by suicide this year. Of those, 10 people resided in the Greater New Bedford area, which Lima said the coalition defines as the city of New Bedford or a town next to it such as Acushnet, Dartmouth, Fairhaven or Freetown.
The numbers are much higher than they were at this time last year and surpass numbers at this time in 2018, when there was a spike.
“There is a heightened worry and concern about people’s mental health and about keeping them safe,” Lima said.
Overall in 2017, 17 people in Greater New Bedford, of 60 people in the county, died by suicide. In 2018, the number of people who died by suicide jumped to 27 in Greater New Bedford, of a total of 86 people in Bristol County, and in 2019 went back down to 17, of 54 people in the county.
If the statistics continue on this upward trajectory, Lima said, Bristol County could reach the triple digits.
“The thing about suicide is…for people that are in that place, in that moment of time, they see it as a solution but it is a permanent solution to what is usually an overwhelming, but a possible, solvable problem,” Lima said.
Samaritans of Fall River/New Bedford which operates a free and confidential crisis hotline (866-508-4357 /508-673-3777) for people who feel anxious, isolated, depressed, lonely, or suicidal, found that 46% of local callers this month mentioned COVID-19 as a stressor, according to data gathered for May 1-18.
“People are feeling more stressed either by the situation of this pandemic hitting so close to home or the isolation to being so confined in a home, or the financial stress that has come with the highest unemployment [rate] that our nation has seen,” said Samaritans Executive Director Darcy Lee.
During that time period, the center answered a total of 477 calls and 43% of them came in through the local hotline, Lee said. The majority of the calls came in through the Samaritans statewide line and National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
At the end of March, the center saw a spike in calls coming in through the local hotline, Lee said. “They were as high as 72 percent, that’s very high for our local hotline,” she said.
This month, they saw relatively small increases in percentage points of callers who are new, depressed, or experiencing anxiety and stress. The percentage of callers who reported grief and loss went up to 28%, or 14 percentage points more than what they’d typically see, according to a report created for the first two weeks of May. Lee said she shares weekly data with COVID-19 response groups in Fall River and New Bedford.
Callers are also talking about issues with finances and relationships. In April, 25% of callers talked about relationship issues, which went up to 37% in May.
In May, 13% of local callers reported feeling suicidal or experiencing suicidal ideation, said Lee, up seven percentage points from April.
“I think the longer that people are isolated in their homes, more people will call the emotional support and suicide prevention hotline,” Lee said.
The center is currently training new volunteers and will have another training class in June, Lee said. Those interested in the training can contact volunteer coordinator Christine Rizza at 508-679-9777 ext. 11 or email@example.com.
Child and Family Services who has a representative that attends the Greater New Bedford Suicide Prevention Coalition monthly meetings wants to raise awareness about its emergency services program, such as a crisis evaluation if someone feels they’re at risk of harming themselves or others or experiencing acute mental health issues.
Wendy Botelho, site director for the 24-hour program in New Bedford oversees the Community-Based Acute Treatment and Community Crisis Stabilization programs. The Community-Based Acute Treatment program is for children age four to 17 who can gain access to individual and group therapy and family treatment for eight to 12 days, she said. That program has nine beds.
The Community Crisis Stabilization program currently has five beds instead of nine to follow physical distancing requirements, where adults can access therapies and medication management. People typically stay for five days and insurance is not required to access this program, Botelho said.
“We continue to have a steady flow of individuals who are seeking our help and we suspect there are more individuals who can access our services,” Botelho said. “People might think that they can’t gain access to services, but they can.”
Child and Family Services can also provide referrals to outpatient services and some providers are offering telehealth.
Child and Family Services is hosting a virtual Suicide Bereavement Support Group June 2 from 4 to 5 p.m., a free group funded by the Greater New Bedford Suicide Prevention Coalition. Those interested in attending can register here: child-familyservices.org/Virtual-Suicide-Bereavement-Group/