WESTFIELD, NJ — With coronavirus giving rise to new levels of anxiety and social isolation, National Suicide Prevention Month has taken on a new level of importance, including in Westfield.

People are experiencing mental exhaustion, the result of prolonged anxiety during the pandemic, Lauren Hammer, a Westfield-based psychotherapist and leadership coach, said.

“It’s this constant added layer of weight,” Hammer said. “Many of us have adapted to working from home, a new level of togetherness and the added stress of modifying how we can do things, but there’s been a societal buildup of anxiety, and some people are experiencing burnout now.”

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Local officials hope to help.

Councilman Jim Boyes, who serves as the town council’s liaison to the Westfield Mental Health Commission, said the group has posted a series of resources to its website to benefit people who may be struggling with mental health issues or have loved ones facing such challenges.

“Even as things are opening up, we are realizing that this is something we will be dealing with for a long time,” Boyes said. “Many people still feel isolated, and for those who have underlying health conditions or have been vulnerable to mental health issues, it creates an even greater challenge. It’s so important to extend a kind hand to these people.”

MORE: Learn About the Westfield Mental Health Council’s CAKE Initiative

Caring Contact, a volunteer-staffed caring and crisis hotline and listening community based in Westfield, is on track to answer nearly 15% more calls this year, from 13,500 in 2019 to an anticipated 15,500 this year.

“We started tracking in mid-March and noted that about 35% of calls we were receiving from then through May had some mention of COVID-19,” said Janet Sarkos, executive director of Caring Contact. “We get calls about a lot of things, and it’s going to be important to continue to watch statistics over the next year.

“Specific concerns about COVID-19 have included the fear of getting sick or grief over the loss of a loved one, stress over work/family balance or financial difficulties, and intensified relationship issues that have come with more time together at home.” 

“Every month is Suicide Prevention Month for us,” Sarkos said. “We work all year to get messaging out, and 2020 is no different. It’s important for people to know that they’re not in charge of fixing other people. But just noticing and nonjudgmentally asking the question, ‘Are you OK?’ can be incredibly protective.” 

Caring Contact has partnered with Northfield Bank again this September to provide local coffee shops with coffee sleeves to raise awareness about suicide prevention. In Westfield, Farinolio, Boxwood Coffee and Ahrre’s Coffee Roastery are distributing the sleeves.

The important messages from Caring Contact’s leadership, however, are more nuanced than those that can be printed on a coffee sleeve.

“There’s a common myth that if you ask someone about suicide, maybe they haven’t thought of it, and this will push them toward it,” Sarkos said. “This has been disproven, and research on this topic actually shows that if you show someone you’re concerned, you’re saying ‘I can handle the answer,’ which means they’ll stay safe knowing they can talk about it.”

“Be aware of signs and symptoms, and trust yourself,” Sarkos added. “You don’t need to be right. But let someone know you’re worried about them or ask if they’re OK. And then call a hotline like Caring Contact, where you’ll reach someone who is comfortable talking about suicide and knowledgeable about the steps you can take to keep the person safe.” 

While the pandemic has prompted a rise an increase in calls to the hotline, the nonprofit has also seen a rise in people volunteering.

“With the pandemic, we’ve seen a surge in people’s commitment to helping others, which means that we’ve been able to staff the phone lines during this crisis,” Sarkos said.

MORE: Be Alert for ‘Pandemic Fatigue’ Says Health Commissioner As NJ Passes 200K Coronavirus Cases

For people who remain distressed in the day-to-day, Hammer has one bit of advice.

“This is all unknown. There’s no framework, and we don’t know what to expect,” she said. “But if you give yourself permission to not be at your best under these circumstances, then you’ll have more realistic expectations of yourself and your capacity will increase.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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