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Mississippi sees jump in suicide hotline calls during virus

June 12, 2020 GMT
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves speaks about his executive order relaxing restrictions on nightclubs and bars during the daily COVID-19 news update in Jackson, Miss., Wednesday, June 10, 2020. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves speaks about his executive order relaxing restrictions on nightclubs and bars during the daily COVID-19 news update in Jackson, Miss., Wednesday, June 10, 2020. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Calls from Mississippi to the national Suicide Prevention Lifeline have increased by 20% since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, a leader at the state Department of Mental Health said Friday.

“There are severe mental health challenges going on as a result of this virus,” Gov. Tate Reeves said at a press briefing with Wendy Bailey, chief of staff at the Department of Mental Health. “There is fear, there is pain and there is anxiety in this country and in our state and those cannot be overstated.”

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The number of people seeking mental health services in the state has increased across the board since February, Bailey said. These challenges can be spurred by changes in eating or sleeping habits, anxiety about one’s health or the health of loved ones, stress over the loss of a job or increased use of substances, something that is common during a major event like the pandemic, Bailey said.

One in five Mississippians will experience mental illness during their lifetime, Bailey said.

“It’s common, but it’s not often talked about,” she said.

Bailey and Reeves took time to share mental health resources, including the 24/7 mobile crisis unit in each of the state’s 82 counties that responds to mental health emergencies. The Department of Mental Health launched a website in March, which includes a directory of resources by county and videos of Mississippians talking about living with mental illness.

Reeves said loneliness and isolation are “powerful diseases of the mind” that are “too often deadly.”

“We cannot pretend that everyone is doing ‘just OK,’” Reeves said. “We need to face the depression, anxiety and fear that are plaguing us.”

Bailey said connecting with loved ones is a powerful antidote.

“Gov. Reeves spoke about social distancing,” she said. “It has saved innumerous lives. But at the same time, social distancing does not mean disconnecting from everything.”

The national suicide prevention lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK. More resources can be found at mentalhealthms.com. Those seeking help with substance misuse can go to standupms.org.

The Health Department said Friday that Mississippi — with a population of about 3 million — has had at least 19,091 cases and 881 deaths from the coronavirus as of Thursday evening. That was an increase of 608 cases and 13 deaths from the numbers reported two days earlier. Health Department officials said “technical difficulties” prevented numbers from being posted Thursday.

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The number of coronavirus infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected without feeling sick. For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up within weeks. For others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause severe symptoms and be fatal.

The Health Department said Friday that at least 2,165 cases of the virus have been confirmed in long-term care facilities such as nursing homes, with at least 453 virus-related deaths in those facilities.

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Follow AP coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.

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Leah Willingham is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.