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UArizona Psychiatrists Combat Depression, Suicide Spike During COVID-19 Pandemic
By Lisa Padilla - Friday May 22, 2020
On May 1, the Pima County Health Department sent an alert to community health care providers about a sharp increase in suicides between early February and mid-April, with risks triple for those suffering sleep problems.

Mirroring a trend seen nationally, the county’s data compared the first five weeks of the pandemic (Feb. 2 to March 7) to the next five weeks (March 8 to April 11), which showed a 161.5% jump in suicides – from an average of 2.6 per week to 6.8 per week. The highest number of deaths were in the 40-59 age group, followed closely by individuals age 19-39.

The data also showed 79% of suicides were individuals with confirmed mental illness and/or co-occurring medical conditions (vulnerable populations) such as: individuals living in poverty, families living in poverty with school-age children, minority groups, people with chronic health conditions, and people who recently experienced unemployment, divorce, domestic violence or child removal.

Gustavo Perez, PhD, a clinical assistant professor in the UArizona Department of Psychiatry and lead psychologist at the EPICenter at Banner – University Medicine Whole Health Clinic, explains that “human beings are social by nature. It has been demonstrated that the best protector for physical and emotional wellbeing is a sense of kinship with others. With COVID-19 and the need to shelter in place, it can be more challenging to preserve social connections. When factoring in social stressors like racism, marginalization or LGBTQ discrimination, individuals can experience acute isolation, distress and suicidal ideation.

“Maintaining a sense of meaning and purpose in life also is a core component of wellbeing,” Dr. Perez explains. “Many people fulfill this need through work accomplishment and the ability to provide for their families. The rise of massive unemployment due to COVID-19 threatens this sense of satisfaction with life. Limited options for employment can increase a sense of hopelessness and negatively impact physical, mental and emotional health.”

Michael A. Grandner, PhD, MTR, UArizona associate professor of psychiatry and director of the Sleep and Health Research Program, adds, “Sleep difficulties definitely have emerged in some people due to COVID-19. Insomnia, nightmares and being awake at night all have been shown to be important risk factors for suicide. For example, risk of suicide is about triple in people with sleep problems. Our research, in particular, has shown that being awake in the middle of the night increases suicide risk even in people who don’t have preexisting mental health diagnoses and thoughts of suicide increase in relation to the number of nights per week an individual feels like they don’t get enough sleep.”

To help prevent suicides, “Pima County residents should know Banner – University Medical Center’s psychiatry clinics, as well as the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Clinic – which is co-located with the Center for Sleep Disorders at Banner – UMC Tucson, are open and seeing patients remotely via telephone and video calls,” Dr. Grandner says. “We are dedicated to helping the community get through this time and we are available.”

Dr. Perez adds, “Countless social investigations have demonstrated that connection to others has a positive impact in physical, emotional and cognitive health and reduces the risk for suicide in a community. We can be present with others in many ways, depending in each person’s context: offering to buy groceries for an elderly neighbor, calling a distant friend, playing a board game with your children or simply giving our full compassionate attention to somebody after we ask ‘how are you doing?’ In adverse times, kinship with others can save lives.”


Call 9-1-1
If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, call 520-622-6000 or 1-866-495-6735 (TDD/TTY: 1-877-613-2076) to reach the Community-Wide Crisis line

Walk-in crisis services are available at Banner – University Medicine Crisis Response Center (at Banner – UMC South), 2802 E. District St.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741

Banner – University Medicine Behavioral Health:, 520-874-7520
NAMI’s online communities and also contact your local NAMI affiliate for resources in your area offers free online chat for emotional support and counseling, with services in Spanish available
Emotions Anonymous offering weekly online meetings
Support Groups Central has virtual groups for free or low cost

The Tribe Wellness Community offers free, online peer support groups. Includes focused groups for addiction, anxiety, depression, HIV/AIDS, LGBT, marriage/family, OCD and teens.

Find more information on College of Medicine – Tucson activities regarding the COVID-19 pandemic at this link

The UArizona Health Sciences COVID-19 Resources webpage can be found here

For the latest on the University of Arizona response to the novel coronavirus, visit the university's COVID-19 webpage

By Jamie Manser