Virginians struggling with mental health during pandemic: overdose, trauma and suicidal thoughts


RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Unlike COVID-19 tests and unemployment numbers, the mental health toll that the pandemic is having on Virginians is difficult to calculate.

Mira Signer, Virginia’s Chief Deputy Commissioner for Community Behavioral Health, said the state is starting to gather some information but there are still many unknowns.

“What we know more broadly is that Virginians are increasingly at risk for a number of issues related to the coronavirus pandemic,” Signer said. “It’s important for people to know they’re not alone.”

Overdoses are increasing

Gov. Ralph Northam said he’s hearing from localities across the commonwealth about an increase in overdoses. In Roanoke County, for example, he said dispatchers have responded to twice as many fatal overdoses in the first five months of this year than they did in all of 2019.

Rosie Hobron, a forensic epidemiologist with Virginia’s Chief Medical Examiner’s office, said they’ve had hundreds of cases since March that are still pending to certify cause and manner of death. She said they won’t have hard data until those cases are finalized.

“However, I can say off-hand that we have seen a big increase in suspected fatal accidental overdoses since the start of the COVID-19 lock down just based on our daily call log,” Hobron said.

Alcohol sales are up

It’s not uncommon for sales at Virginia ABC stores to increase from year-to-year but the pandemic appears to be influencing this trend. That could be because people are drinking more or because people are changing where they buy their alcohol during bar closures.

The most significant increase in liquor sales appeared to come at the beginning of the state’s pandemic. ABC sales in March 2020 shot up by about 21 percent–an additional $18.7 million–compared to the same month last year. Compare that to a 3 percent increase between March 2018 and March 2019.

Source: Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority

Crisis line reports suicidal thoughts, trauma, economic stress

VDBHDS has yet to obtain National Suicide Prevention Lifeline data from the pandemic. They are beginning to get some information from PRS CrisisLink, a call center serving Virginia that offers crisis intervention, suicide prevention and support for emotional distress.

From March 19 to May 19, 2020, the center received 2,082 calls related to COVID-19.

  • 28% reported job loss or general economic stress
  • 32% reported trauma or post traumatic stress disorder
  • 11% reported problems with substance abuse
  • 7% reported relapse
  • 23-38% reported acute suicidal thoughts

“Hearing those statistics, it’s not necessarily surprising but at the same time we don’t really know the full magnitude of the situation in terms of people’s mental health,” Signer said.

How people can cope during the pandemic

Mary Page Shinholser, 27, is 10 months sober from alcohol and works in recovery. She said it has been a challenge having her routine uprooted during the pandemic.

“My job with Broad Highway Recovery is to go out into the community and be social,” Shinholser said. “Addiction and isolation thrive off of each other.”

Shinholser said she has been participating in 12 step programs on Zoom, going for walks, doing online fitness classes and meditating. She said it’s important to try to maintain a regular schedule and stay in touch with a support system.

“It’s OK to physically isolate yourself because that’s what we as a nation need to be doing right now to get past this but it is not OK to socially isolate yourself. Call people. It’s OK to ask for help,” she said.

For more resources from the Virginia Department of Behavior click here

1-800-273-TALK is a confidential line for people who are under distress

For more suicide prevention services in Virginia, click here.

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