Stress associated with the COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increase of suicidal patients at DHR Health Behavioral Hospital in Edinburg, according to one of the institution’s physicians.

Dr. Adrian Agapito

Dr. Adrian Pauolo Agapito, a general psychiatrist at the hospital, says it is important for people close to an individual having thoughts of harming themselves to know what the warning signs of suicide are, so they can encourage them to seek professional help.

“I definitely need the family members and close friends of an individual to be very aware of how the patient is acting, because only they know what the baseline behavior of the patient is,” Agapito said, who shared his sentiments to help raise awareness during National Suicide Awareness Month, which is in September.

Signs that someone may be having suicidal thoughts include changes in personality (abnomal apathy, irritableness or anxiety), irregular sleeping patterns (insomnia, oversleeping or nightmares), or unsteady eating habits (loss of appetite or overeating).

Another indicator that someone at risk of harming themselves is a change in their performance in work or school.

These nonverbal cues, Agapito said, are imperative in saving someone from acting on their suicidal thoughts.

“A lot of individuals won’t tell you flat out that they are suicidal,” he said. “You can usually be able to tell through their body language. Are they not sleeping enough, do they look restless, do they look on edge, do they look like they are worried about something… I rely really heavily on the family to be able to point out initially that the person has had an abrupt change in behavior.”

Every 40 seconds, someone in the world dies by suicide, according to the World Health Organization, totaling to at least 800,000 people a year.

While talking to someone who may be having suicidal thoughts, Mayo Clinic Health Systems suggests four goals to keep in mind: be willing to listen to them, directly ask them if they are considering suicide, clear the area of tools that could be used to do so, and seek help if they admit to plans of taking their own life.

Agapito noted that the behavioral center has “definitely seen an uprise in the number of suicidal patients over the past couple months… mainly due to the pandemic-related stress.”

With the emotional and economic struggle the pandemic has created, Agapito said being mindful of the mental wellbeing of others has never been more important, because not only are isolation and deaths of loved ones risk factors of suicide, people have not been allowed to do activities they usually find comfort in.

“The pandemic has kept people isolated from crucial support systems, such as friends and classmates for students, with the advent of online schooling,” Agapito said.

He emphasized that it is incumbent on people around the person with suicidal thoughts to be  aware of the signs, so they can encourage them to see a local psychiatrist.

“If they feel deep down that something is off, I would like those family members to go with their gut and get the patient evaluated right away,” Agapito said. “Don’t second guess it if they have a bad feeling that the patient is not safe, or if the patient is at risk of harming themselves — just take them to a behavioral center or have them seen by a trained professional.”

Before the pandemic hit, climbing suicide rates was already a growing problem in the U.S.

In the past two decades, suicide rates have increased by 35%, making it the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.

“What is happening is that people who were already depressed and were coping with it by spending time with friends and family are now in a situation where they are isolated and not able to get consistent support,” Agapito said. “And a lot of people who are losing social contacts are slipping deeper and deeper into depression, which leads to suicidal thoughts.”

Feelings of loneliness created by social distancing precautions have been especially difficult for students who were used to seeing their classmates almost every day. Since March, districts across the region have been operating remotely.

“Because of the online schooling, the isolation from their friends has led to increased rates of depression,” Agapito said. “They don’t have things like sports and activities to cope with that stress.”

He reiterated that when someone’s life is on the line, do not hesitate to get them the help they need. “It’s better to be safe than sorry,” he said.

The DHR Behavioral Health Hospital, which is located at 5510 Raphael Drive in Edinburg, offers free clinical assessments 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The center can be reached at (956) 362-4357.

The South Texas Behavioral Health Center is located at 2102 W. Trenton Road in Edinburg, and also offers free assessments. The center can be reached at (956) 388-1300.