The Suicide Pandemic Needs Our Attention
An interview with Jack C. Lennon on suicide during COVID-19.
Posted Jun 30, 2020
Suicide is an incredibly devastating issue with widespread prevalence in many communities. However, this secondary pandemic to the current COVID-19 pandemic must not be overlooked. Now more than ever, people need to know they are supported and cared for.
Jack C. Lennon, M.A., is a fifth-year doctoral candidate studying Clinical Psychology and Neuropsychology at Adler University in Chicago, Illinois. His clinical work has spanned psychotherapy with underrepresented groups presenting with a variety of psychiatric and psychosocial stressors to neuropsychological assessment of a range of neurologic conditions. His background is in preclinical Alzheimer’s disease research. He most recently contributed a chapter on the neuropsychological considerations of suicide and self-injury to an upcoming book being published by Springer. Jack C. Lennon also serves as a reviewer for several journals in psychiatry and neuroscience and is a Board Member of the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
JA: How did you first get interested in this topic?
JCL: I believe that many people in all professional and personal domains are becoming concerned about suicide and other mental health concerns—if they were not concerned prior to the rampant transmission of COVID-19, they are now. I have been interested in suicidal behaviors for many years, gravitating toward it because it is a pandemic within itself that we simply cannot seem to prevent in any meaningful, widespread manner. We have a vast literature on the topic, yet it is incredibly difficult to translate many of these findings to clinical practice. Particularly in the context of neurologic populations, the risk of suicide is actually quite high relative to the general population and what many seem to believe. Thus, this is the area in which I believe my interests and skill-set can contribute the most good. When COVID-19 emerged, a new emergent suicide risk simultaneously arose. This virus is not necessarily a modifiable risk factor at-present, such that it is critical we confront the topic seriously and purposefully.
JA: What was the focus of your study?
JCL: This publication was a call for action and awareness, arising from an ongoing review of the COVID-19 studies on neurologic and psychological impacts. Current studies are focusing on clinical characteristics and outcomes of individuals presenting to hospitals with COVID-19. Ongoing studies will continue to monitor the outcomes of individuals recovering from the virus. Importantly, this pandemic is illuminating the flaws of our healthcare system and the political and socioeconomic disparities that have been present in the U.S. for centuries. Specifically, black persons are experiencing disproportionately greater numbers of COVID-19 infections compared to white persons. These findings are critical to our understanding of more than COVID-19 and suicide, informing us of the need to target this population when assessing for suicide risk.
JA: What did you discover in your study?
JCL: We have much to learn in the coming months and years, so it is difficult to state what will occur. However, it is reasonable to suspect that the psychosocial stressors associated with COVID-19 will serve as a risk factor for suicide in those at risk for these types of behaviors. These stressors include but are not limited to a high degree of uncertainty, fear of viral spread either to self or others, increased risk of domestic violence due to quarantining, socioeconomic and employment stressors, witnessing or experiencing the death of friends, family, or patients, and ongoing questions about the future in a world that has not fully recovered from COVID-19. We all read and hear mixed messages related to COVID-19 and its current state in the U.S., which only serves to exacerbate levels of stress.
JA: How might readers apply what you found to their lives during COVID-19?
JCL: I would like to believe that all readers can use the article and apply it to their lives. First, people can recognize that there are well-intentioned researchers focusing on these topics—they are seeking answers to make our lives more certain and understandable. Secondly, no one is alone in his or her struggles. We each have a unique life narrative that includes specific types of stressors but we are all living in an uncertain time during which our lives seem to be turned upside-down. It is not abnormal or unusual to experience ‘side effects’ or thoughts or emotions that are typically uncharacteristic of us. If one is concerned about these emotions and feels that they are becoming too negative or concerning, talk to a trusted friend or family member. We are all in this together and speaking up about how we feel may be the best approach to reducing our anxiety, fear, or general discomfort. There are also mental health professionals out there who would be willing to work with people in need, whether that be on a sliding payment scale or overall reduced fees.
JA: How can readers use what you found to help others amidst this pandemic?
JCL: We should glean from this information a willingness to reach out to those who seem to be struggling, even if those people are not us. We can offer support to those who are experiencing domestic violence during times of quarantining and social-distancing. We can offer support to those who seem to be experiencing emotional difficulties. We can also engage in research for others—calling professionals and seeking assistance for those who may not have the resources or energy to do so. Speaking about these topics, even suicide, is not known to increase the risk of worsened symptoms—it is better to speak aloud about these subjects. Given the pandemic, social interaction is one component, even if by phone or email, that can be incredibly beneficial to those in need.
JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to share about?
JCL: I am currently working on a paper with several colleagues that aims to investigate racial disparities among those with Alzheimer’s disease, specifically focusing on the unique neuropsychiatric presentations that may help us better understand racial differences even within the same diagnostic classification. We hope that this will serve as a call to action for future research to better recruit black persons for studies and ensure that racial differences are thoroughly discussed. In the context of COVID-19, suicide, and potential neurologic concerns, this will be critical to ensuring the well-being of all people, particularly those at greatest risk of negative outcomes. Lastly, I am currently working on a book related to suicide, the brain, and attitudes surrounding it that I would like to eventually publish.
Lennon, J. C. (2020). What lies ahead: Elevated concerns for the ongoing suicide pandemic. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, & Policy. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/tra0000741