Four Thurston County residents have died after testing positive for COVID-19 as of Tuesday, June 23, according to county health officials.
But according to county coroner Gary Warnock, the true death toll is higher when taking into account suicides linked to the pandemic.
Since March, Warnock told the Nisqually Valley News two county residents who died by suicide left behind notes saying that they had contracted the disease.
In another case, a retired man who had to go back into the workforce died by suicide after his wife’s business experienced financial turmoil.
“He just couldn’t handle it. It was because his wife’s business began to flounder,” Warnock said, adding that they learned the information through his family.
The overall number of suicides and calls for mental health assistance have seen spikes in the months since the coronavirus outbreak and associated government-ordered restrictions began taking its toll on the local economy and the public’s health, according to Warnock and a community call center.
Warnock said his office has seen an increase in the number of suicides and noted the likely connection to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2019, the office recorded 50 deaths from suicide, and so far in 2020 year there have been 28 — including four so far in June — putting the county on track to exceed last year’s count.
Data from the coroner’s office shows that firearms have been used in the majority of suicides over the past three months.
Nationwide, the coronavirus pandemic and mandated business and school closures and stay-home orders have taken a toll on people’s mental and physical well being.
A recent poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit that examines health care-related issues, found that about 45 percent of U.S. adults reported their mental health had been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over the virus.
The self-imposed isolation, as well as state-mandated closures of businesses, has also led to many Americans being worried about the economic impacts and about the health of their families and friends, the study says.
Warnock, who has served in his role since 2007, said the uptick in suicides reported by his department is similar to the numbers they experienced near the turn of the last decade and the years following the Great Recession.
“It was the same thing here, people were unemployed,” he said. “The bread winners were not the bread winners anymore, and we saw those suicides.”
The county coroner’s office also noticed an uptick back then of suicides by Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldiers who came back from deployment, Warnock said.
Still, the trend Warnock identified isn’t reflected everywhere.
Comparing calls received at TCOMM 911 during the months of March, April and May with past years, Executive Director Keith Flewelling said they haven’t seen an increase in calls for suicides or overdoses in Thurston County.
“In fact, the overall responses for this year were markedly lower than last year, primarily from reductions in law enforcement responses to lower level response types and the lack of vehicular traffic on the roads and freeway,” he said in an email.
Flewelling said he has heard concerns from other agencies around the country about these worries, but noted that wasn’t the case at TCOMM. He said he’s spoken with his call center supervisors and they told him they haven’t noticed a change in the volume.
At the Crisis Clinic of Thurston and Mason Counties, a nonprofit intervention and resource referral hotline operating around the clock, leaders say they’ve seen an increase in the numbers of callers reaching out due to depression, isolation and drinking problems.
“People have felt really isolated from their family,” said Nora Coutis, vice president and treasurer of the Crisis Clinic’s board of directors, adding that there have also been many people calling in struggling with finances.
Coutis said they don’t have statistics on hand to reflect the increase in need due to the coronavirus outbreak because a number of their volunteers have been working from home.
Once they can have their volunteers back in their office, the nonprofit does plan on studying call log data that its volunteers have been collecting.
“We’ve heard from various volunteers that the calls are increasing and that some of the shifts have been pretty busy,” she said.
More information on the Crisis Clinic can be found online at www.crisis-clinic.org. The clinic can be reached at 360-586-2800. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is also available at 1-800-273-8255.