A Pandemic of Suicide? Mental Health-Addictions Therapist Calls for End to WA Mask/Isolation Mandates

By Staci Sprout, LICSW

Is there hope for our Seattle community? Not if we stay isolated, frozen, and divided in fear.

*Since publishing this article below, people have shared more resources with me on youth pandemic suicide. I am leading with this because it’s so shocking. If you read nothing else from this article, read this:

After assessing the 32 billion claims, the study tracked “month-by-month changes from January to November 2020 compared to the same months in 2019.”

What they found was disturbing.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on mental health, particularly that of young people. School closures, having to learn remotely, and isolating from friends due to social distancing have been sources of stress and loneliness,” the study revealed.

“Among children aged 13 to 18 — teenagers — insurance claims for intentional self-harm were up 90 percent in March of 2020 compared to the previous year. The next month, in April, self-harm cases rose by nearly 100 percent.”

“Claims for medical help related to drug overdoses” rose by “95 percent in March and then to 119 percent in April, and those numbers remained elevated through the fall.”

“In April 2020, generalized anxiety disorder increased 93.6 percent over April 2019, while major depressive disorder increased 83.9 percent and adjustment disorders 89.7 percent,” according to the study.

Hi, my name is Staci Sprout and I am a mental health counselor in private practice in Seattle, WA. I want to talk about the mental health aspects of the pandemic, and share a vision of how we can heal as a community and a world. It is not my intention to be dismissive of the profound losses of those who have been sick, disabled, nor died, nor of those among us who have lost beloved ones to this or any terrible disease, or are even now at a high risk. I myself was diagnosed with covid and thankfully recovered fully; like many I’ve had a swab up my nose on more than one occasion, trying to see if I am contagious even without any symptoms of illness, in effort to protect my family and friends.

But today I am choosing to focus on another aspect of the pandemic, one in my area of professional experience: mental health and addictions. I have grave concerns about the psychological side of prolonged isolation, and the devastation that social distancing and masking policies are having on human bonding and connection. Although I’ve been fearful of covid, as the months of lockdowns and face-coverings turn to years, I’ve become even more afraid of the constricted life as its now expressed in my beloved city of Seattle.

For many people, masks have come to represent safety from disease and death, as well as a badge of care for others. By putting on masks, many feel they are doing their part to be good citizens and protect themselves and the community. Indeed, a common media message from the CDC has been “Stay Home, Stay Safe & Protect Others.” For some among us, for example a friend of mine with an immune-compromised child, community masking has brought great relief.

Like me, you probably have many masks around, in pockets and purses, in various colors and materials. I’ve received beautiful masks as gifts, made by friends, from around the world. When I first noticed I had trouble breathing with my mask on, I even invested in a motorized mask with a fan inside. When I noticed a chronic bacterial infection on my chin, I figured it was not a big deal compared to keeping myself and others safe from covid. Protection is a core need in community, especially in times of danger and threat. I looked to medical experts to help me do the right thing. As a psychotherapist, I followed my doctor’s advice and closed my office, seeing all clients on video and staying masked up wherever I went.

However, as the early stay at home orders began to extend, first weeks, then months, and now with rhetoric of “the new normal” forever, my alarm has continued to rise and propelled me to speak out. The damage of isolation on myself and my community, on my clients (via my sacred front-row seat as a therapist), on families, and especially on isolated elders and children cannot be allowed to become the new normal. The emotional deterioration of our community is easy to see just walking down the street with my dog, where even when we were all masked, neighbors cross the street to avoid one another and no one says hello or expresses warmth. People are afraid of others, regardless of disease or not. What have we sacrificed in our efforts to survive?

Isolation is used to punish prisoners because it works to break down their will; it’s called solitary confinement. In an apparent effort to protect our communities, we are slowly crushing them.

Today I am here to say that following this “Stay Safe” guidance is actually having the opposite effect on a large part of the health and immune system of society, because health MUST include mental health to be whole, and we ignore this at our grave peril. In the terror of covid 2020, we cancelled mental health, and we need to revive it now, in 2021, before we settle for a state of chronic reaction-based alienation. We deserve better, and I believe it is possible!

My own mother Leilani Sprout died in September 2020 of lung disease, and thankfully I was allowed to be with her. Though she wasn’t diagnosed with covid, her death was similar in many ways to those who were. Thankfully, the staff at St. Francis Hospital were kind and humane to our family. Let me tell you, my mom was so fearless, and I feel her spirit with me today. That experience taught me that we all die, so while we are alive, we need to look with all our mind, heart, body and soul at how we are living. I want to live as bravely as my mom died.

A grainy photocard of my last good-bye to my mom in the ICU. We will all die someday. How will we live today?

When humans are faced with immediate life-threatening conditions, which is how covid is presented in the public health messaging, we naturally turn to our loved ones for connection and reassurance — it’s how our nervous systems, also known as our emotional immune systems, work. But isolation and masking policies have damaged this form of support because people have become so afraid of one another. Humans rely on cues to connect: eye contact, facial expressions, words in friendly, kind tones, loving touch, and body language. Masks cover most of that up, and social distancing does the rest to keep us without comfort and encouragement when we are needing it most.

Without enough connection in times of threat, humans automatically drop into survival mode: first in fight or flight reactions. If you have found yourself very angry, moving into judgment and hostility, or avoiding or exiting situations or relationships, this may be your symptoms of what I call “covid trauma.” This crisis has divided communities into “maskers” and “anti-maskers” or as we are seeing more lately, “vaccinated” and “un-vaccinated.” Chronic terror has pushed many into the final autonomic nervous system reaction of freeze, or play dead. Stay at home, and maybe you won’t die. But is that living? And, are the justifications for this life or death response, with its costs of depression and despair, truly valid?

From this article: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7680614/

From a March 13, 2021 AP News story:

Virus Tolls Similar Despite Governors’ Contrasting Actions

Nearly a year after California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered the nation’s first statewide shutdown because of the coronavirus, masks remain mandated, indoor dining and other activities are significantly limited, and Disneyland remains closed.

By contrast, Florida has no statewide restrictions. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has prohibited municipalities from fining people who refuse to wear masks. And Disney World has been open since July.

Despite their differing approaches, California and Florida have experienced almost identical outcomes in COVID-19 case rates.

As new COVID-19 cases decrease nationally, governors in more than half the states have taken actions during past two weeks to end or ease coronavirus restrictions, according to an Associated Press tally. Some capacity limits ended Friday in Maryland and Oklahoma. Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York and Wyoming are relaxing restrictions in the coming week.

The problem with survival brain tactics is they are anti-intimacy, anti-connection, and anti-community. Survival brain was meant for short bursts to outrun tigers, not a way-of-life “new normal.” Living under duress exhausts our adrenal systems and depletes our health and immune systems. In other words, chronic threat reactivity degrades our health and mental health (as chronic, low-grade does oxygen deprivation). What I am seeing in the world today is a competing pandemic, one with as much or more serious potential consequences than covid. That is a pandemic of fear, division, hostility and despair. A mental health/addictions pandemic. A pandemic of suicide.

According to a Washington Post article from November 2020, federal surveys show that 40 percent of Americans are now grappling with at least one mental health or drug-related problem. But young adults have been hit harder than any other age group, with 75 percent struggling. One in four young adults have struggled with suicidal thoughts during the pandemic, with the most dramatic increase in those between 18–24 years old. For reason I don’t understand, data on suicides are not accurately measured in America. Why isn’t this a priority? Some counties report pandemic suicides rising by 23%, with higher rates among the Black Community. No one can argue that we are dealing with fatal effects. For a growing number of people, isolation is killing us!

This story highlighted the tragic suicide of a boy named Christian Roberts from Richland, WA, and reported that a psychiatric center in his hometown was overwhelmed with calls for help and had to put suicidal teens on a waiting list. All the treatment beds were full.

Remember that news footage so many of us saw, paired with alarming stories that hospitals would be overrun with covid patients? Well, mental health hospitals like this one ARE overrun with depressed, suicidal teens and adults, while hospitals appear more than able to handle the covid patients under their care. Where are the stories of the unmet mental health needs? Since the pandemic began, over $175 billion dollars of emergency funding has been allocated to hospitals and other medical facilities, but less than 1 percent of that has gone specifically to mental health and substance abuse services. Where are the voices of mental health and addictions treatment advocates in politics?

I want to echo this question, and turn it into a call for action: we need to take responsibility for this, and act now. That’s why I am lending my support the March 27, 2021 anti-masking march at Seattle Center at 1pm, and why I ask for your support too. I hope you can join us!

There are no lines to psychiatric hospitals or addiction treatment centers because most people suffering stay silent. They live in shame and fear and anxiety daily, trying to be “safe.” No, staying at home is not safe for many, including abused, neglected children and victims of domestic violence — also on a significant pandemic rise. We must take immediate measures to restore the most powerful medicine to our society, the medicine of smiling faces and hugs and gathering, of warm welcomes and “come closer” not “stay 6’ apart.” We need to put the “unity” back in “community.” The antidote to the fatal outcomes of isolation policies: connection. Can we expand our “bubbles of safety” to save lives of those among us living in chronic despair?

As I review all sides of the research and look at the risk of illness versus the mental health/addiction costs, I do not believe the facts justify continued government policies of masking asymptomatic people nor requiring social distancing. Drug overdose deaths are the highest they have been in any year in history. As a mental health professional I believe we cannot continue to prioritize fear of dying over our need to live, connect, and thrive. I call for courage and discernment, not condemnation of those who are trying to speak up*. If current government leadership cannot see and be moved by the escalating suffering of the people it is entrusted to support and serve, I hold a vision that the community can act independently to find the strength to take off our masks and cross the heart-gap of 6’ to embrace one another again.

I especially ask that we stop glaring at, berating, shaming or otherwise harassing our neighbors who are not wearing masks, regardless of their reasons. This behavior is not protecting ourselves, it is blatant discrimination and bullying. If you remain in fear for your health, wear your own mask, decide about vaccines for your own body and your children, but do not attack nor judge others who — for reasons that are just as valid as yours –choose not to. Many have medical, mental health or religious exemptions and these are protected by federal civil rights laws that so many fought so hard to earn for us. They have been completely overlooked, and overrun. With care and kindness, you may actually save a life of someone ruminating on ending it.

According to Victoria, the founder of March For Freedom Washington, she has been approached by people on more than one occasion while engaged in maskless protests who said they’d been actively contemplating suicide, and were encouraged to live by their small, friendly group holding signs and smiling. This is not a hate group.

Victoria’s call to action:

“Let’s get back to what’s really real in life. The freedom we seek doesn’t come from Washington D.C. or Olympia. It’s up to us to negotiate our lives and our daily interactions with those around us. Keep doing what makes us human: love, joy, humor. Let’s keep the old manners of treating people kindly. Seeing them as humans instead of infectious agents…

We’ll stay out on the streets with our signs for the foreseeable future. We’re still finding people that care, people that are awake. We need to keep the remaining channels of free speech open by using them responsibly. Face-to-face connections are the most powerful. We’ll continue connecting on the street, at social gatherings, and in-person presentations. I encourage you to participate whenever you can.”

I do not know all the solutions to this crisis, but it IS a crisis, especially of mental health. Others have emphasized the problem in terms of homelessness, poverty, racial injustice, child abuse and DV, single parenting, and more. But what I do know is that we heal from being frozen in fear by taking small steps. We get into motion. We get into ACTION.

It is my hope that we can address this together, respectfully. We can overcome this challenge in unified cooperation. To do this we must overcome our divisions, and return to clear thinking and discernment about real versus imagined risks.

I close with this conclusion, for those who would appreciate more science-based information in this opinion article, from the scientific paper Facemasks in the COVID-19 era: A health hypothesis by Baruch Vainshelboim, from the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, published online 2020 Nov 22: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7680614/:

RE: The existing scientific evidences challenge the safety and efficacy of wearing facemask as preventive intervention for COVID-19. The data suggest that both medical and non-medical facemasks are ineffective to block human-to-human transmission of viral and infectious disease such SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19, supporting against the usage of facemasks. Wearing facemasks has been demonstrated to have substantial adverse physiological and psychological effects. These include hypoxia, hypercapnia, shortness of breath, increased acidity and toxicity, activation of fear and stress response, rise in stress hormones, immunosuppression, fatigue, headaches, decline in cognitive performance, predisposition for viral and infectious illnesses, chronic stress, anxiety and depression. Long-term consequences of wearing facemask can cause health deterioration, developing and progression of chronic diseases and premature death. Governments, policy makers and health organizations should utilize prosper and scientific evidence-based approach with respect to wearing facemasks, when the latter is considered as preventive intervention for public health.

Hope to see you Saturday March 27th!

I’ll be marching for mental health and suicide prevention. Join us!

The PEACEFUL, NON-POLITICAL March for Freedom in Seattle, WA is scheduled for Saturday, March 27, 2021 from 1–4:30pm. Walk starts at 2pm. Gather at Seattle Center at 5th Avenue N and Mercer St., walk is about ½ mile each way.

No display of weapons or hateful messages — this is a family-friendly event!

*Who are the people who are putting on this march? I have met Victoria, the organizer and several of the volunteers. Most are over 60 — at age 51 I was one of the youngest participants. They hold various political affiliations, or none. Some are spiritually-focused, some not. Different backgrounds and racialized identities. Some are identified as recovering from addiction/mental health challenges like me, most not. One thing the group has in common is they are intelligent, determined, fun people who agree — the mask mandate and hygiene protocols put in place by Governor Inslee need to end. Count me in.

Seattle Truth Network

Pandemic Suicides story reference

https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2020/11/23/covid-pandemic-rise-suicides/

The Year of Disguises

Interesting and thorough article by a PhD in chemistry and former Pharmaceutical and Biotechnology Industry consultant on why masks don’t work against the virus for the general population. He comments on lockdowns as well.

https://www.aier.org/article/the-year-of-disguises/

Why don’t we have up to date statistics on suicide? In today’s high tech society, this is unacceptable.

https://afsp.org/suicide-statistics/

Global rise in childhood mental health issues amid pandemic

Americans are dying of despair. COVID’s to blame, and Biden’s administration must address it

https://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/news-columns-blogs/andres-oppenheimer/article249555788.html

‘It’s a pandemic within a pandemic’ | Addiction crisis worse than ever in the Carolinas

Staci Sprout, LICSW, CSAT is a is a licensed psychotherapist from Seattle with over twenty-six years of experience as a therapist and social worker in a variety of settings from community mental health and hospitals to private clinical practice. Since 2006, she has dedicated her practice to helping individuals, groups and couples in recovery from sex/pornography, love and relationship addictions. She wrote a book about her own recovery titled Naked in Public: A Memoir of Recovery from Sex Addiction and Other Temporary Insanities.

More information available at www.stacisprout.com. Online professional education program “Shadows of the Heart: Best Practices of Helping Professionals Treating Women with Love, Sex and Relationship Addiction” at https://stacisprout.thinkific.com/. Staci’s latest venture has been to launch “Women’s Intimacy Skills Bootcamp” classes for women who want a gentle crash course in intimacy with self and others.

…is a licensed psychotherapist from Seattle with over twenty-six years of experience as a therapist and social worker in a variety of clinical settings.

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