Milwaukee-area health officials concerned about 'increasing rates of suicide' amid COVID-19 pandemic

MILWAUKEE -- While we may be separated physically as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, mental health experts say it's important to stay connected now more than ever, with Milwaukee area health officials indicating they're seeing a rise in suicides.

It's important to note that help is available, with some feeling more alone than ever as a result of social distancing intended to help stop the spread of the virus.

Ann Christiansen

"The increasing rates of suicide, as well as fatal drug overdoses is something we're watching and are concerned about," said Ann Christiansen, director of the North Shore Health Department.

Christiansen said it's an increase they're seeing across the region.

"It's too soon to see actual numbers," said Christiansen. "It's more what we're hearing anecdotally."

Munther Barakat

With health officials work to gather concrete statistics, Munther Barakat, director of behavioral health therapy for Aurora Health Care has been busy keeping critical programs for high-need patients running.

"They have significant anxiety, depression, and being isolated is only going to make it worse," said Barakat.

While group therapy might look different within the four corners of a computer screen, it's nonetheless giving patients a sense of community, and time to work on their goals.

"This is a time where people really need to fight off the stigma of what it means to get help for mental health issues," said Barakat.

Shawn Cahill

Shawn Cahill with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Department of Psychology said anxiety and depression related to the inability to go about our "normal" lives is common.

"This period of social isolation we are going through is probably going to be more difficult for people who suffered depression even before all of this started," said Cahill.

Cahill urged people to structure their days by setting a schedule, starting with what might sound simple -- getting up and getting dressed.

He also said it's important to stay social, whether it's by text, video chat, or a simple phone call.

"If somebody is concerned about a family member, the best thing to do is reach out," said Cahill.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

If you need someone to reach out to, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 -- and is free and confidential: 1-800-273-8255.