CAIRO — A coalition dedicated to preventing suicide in Grady County will meet later this week to discuss the unique challenges posed to at-risk individuals due to the coronavirus.

With many of the common risks for suicide such as social isolation, anxiety, depression and drug and alcohol abuse on the upswing, Start Teaching Early Prevention (STEP) Up’s role as a suicide prevention coalition is more important than ever, said Dustin Infinger, the group’s leader.

“There’s something to legitimately be afraid of right now,” Infinger said. “People that are already struggling with anxiety disorders, their anxiety is extremely heightened at the moment.”

Friday afternoon’s virtual meeting of STEP Up coalition members will discuss how best to address those anxieties in a way that can reach people sheltering at home and how the group’s core message can be tailored to fit the current situation.

People concerned about an inability to pay their bills or of becoming seriously ill — two fears many Americans are currently experiencing — are already at an increased risk of attempting suicide. Additionally, protective factors in the community, such as access to friends and family, is limited to many. Infinger said even people in perfectly good health are feeling anxious.

“It’s kind of a perfect storm of heightened risk right now,” he said.

A recent survey of suicide risk factors in Grady County determined that one of the biggest contributors was social isolation — now mandated across the state as a method of preventing further spread of the virus. Other key risks such as substance misuse could see as rise as well. With people stuck at home where they’re more likely to keep personal firearms, alcohol or prescription drugs, Infinger said it’s easy for many to self-medicate or harm themselves.

“There’s just a lot of time for people to sit and stew and not a lot of opportunities to reach out to people that are part of their support network,” he said. “These are all things that are concerning.”

Health officials in Moultrie say there has been a noticeable increase in suicides in the area since the shelter-in-place order was first mandated last month, Infinger said. A discussion of what STEP Up can do to assist the Moultrie area will be one of the subjects of Friday’s meeting.

Across the country, people in rural areas similar to Grady County have seen upticks in suicide as well.

“In Tennessee there are more suicides than coronavirus deaths,” Infinger said.

One of Infinger’s main priorities in Friday’s meeting is to come up with a plan for how to move forward with STEP Up’s “Safe Homes” initiative — a recently-launched campaign designed to encourage citizens to limit access to lethal means of suicide in households.

The Safe Homes model already addresses some of the risk factors that Infinger said are in a heightened state, namely access to lethal means of self-harm and substance abuse. With a new need to build a virtual support network, Infinger said he hopes to modify Safe Homes’ message to find a way to reach people online instead of in-person.

“We want to really get ahead of this as best we can or adapt with it and try to make the home a safer place for people that are struggling right now,” he said.

That means encouraging residents to limit access to lethal means of suicide in their homes and spreading awareness of different options for individuals coping with depression, such as telehealth or virtual mental health support groups. Infinger said existing resources such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Georgia COVID-19 Emotional Support Line at 866-399-8938, the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-622-4357, the Georgia Crisis and Access Line at 1-800-715-4225, the CARES Warm Line at 1-844-326-5400 and the Peer2Peer Warm Line at 888-945-1414 can provide confidential assistance to callers in need of support, most of them 24/7.

Online resources include the Trevor Project, Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE) and 7 Cups.

Phone apps such as Super Better, Smiling Mind and Woebot can help build resilience and and mindfulness skills.

Infinger also encourages people to put energy into healthy activities and regular exercise such as walking or jogging.

“I started running during all of this for my own personal mental health,” he said. “I run twice a week because I have to get out of my house and get out of my head and into my body.”

For others, that might mean spending time meditating, surfing the web or playing a game — anything to get peoples’ minds off of their anxieties.

Infinger also recommends checking in with friends and family sincerely to see how they’re coping.

Anyone sheltering with an individual they believe may be at risk of suicide should first secure their homes.

“The biggest thing is to try to limit their access to lethal means,” Infinger said. “You can only do so much, but proper firearm storage, proper prescription storage, making sure someone doesn’t have enough of a dose to die of suicide, even limiting the amount of alcohol (all helps).”

Once the danger has been reduced, Infinger said people can continue showing support to one another by maintaining contact. Though social distancing guidelines should be adhered to, Infinger encourages people to interact with one another over the phone, or even better, with video chats using apps such as Zoom.

“Seeing other peoples’ faces and expressions does kind of alleviate that sense of isolation quite a bit,” he said.

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