A few years ago, when I was a senior in high school, I sent a text to my mother that read, “I don’t want to live anymore.”
Even riding the highs of my acceptance to Temple University and graduation season, the feelings of anxiety and depression in addition to the obsessive thoughts of hopelessness from a seemingly unknown source felt unbearable. The only way I could stop myself from acting on the suicide ideation was if I was not alone.
My mother came to my school, where we talked it out with counselors. My healing process was marked by the physical presence of people who supported my journey.
Now, as we near a year of social distancing due to the coronavirus pandemic, more people than ever are alone, all the time. That’s why I believe that anyone with a history of suicide, mental health disorders, and behavioral health disorders should be prioritized to receive a vaccine.
The pandemic has taken its toll on everyone’s mental health. By June, the CDC reported that 40% of adults were struggling with their mental health and substance use — and that’s on top of the already high statistics from recent years past. Pennsylvania follows guidelines from the CDC that outline which underlying medical conditions increase the likely severity of COVID-19 and death. There’s no mention of people with suicidal tendencies or mental or behavioral health disorders on the list of vaccine eligibility. Yet, a CDC report summarized that a “public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic should increase intervention and prevention efforts to address associated mental health conditions.” This contradiction is frustrating as it makes for confusing directions for how the commonwealth is approaching support for the mental health of its residents.
Those who rely on others for the upkeep of their mental health and recovery have been particularly challenged throughout the pandemic. COVID-19 social distancing efforts have made it hard to get proper care. On top of the obstacles of stigma, virus fears add to the struggle of checking into a hospital or facility if someone is thinking of suicide or experiencing a crisis. When these issues are mixed with social isolation, canceled plans, and economic instability, the situation can become deadly. An increase in suicidal-like behavior and a rise in drug overdose-related deaths show the lethal potential of COVID-19 beyond the virus itself.
If individuals with mental and behavioral health disorders and those with a history of harming themselves were prioritized for the COVID-19 vaccine, the public health benefit would be immense. While inpatient behavioral health facilities are included in Phase 1A of Philadelphia’s vaccine distribution plan, vaccinating those not currently in facilities who are struggling at home is still crucial. All different types of treatment facilities could operate at ease, knowing the person receiving treatment has been vaccinated. In-person recovery groups could resume. Someone going through an intense low of major depressive disorder would be able to surround themselves with friends and family.
Today, I’m fortunate enough to be in acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) that emphasizes that when we are struggling, we must accept what we are feeling instead of ignoring our distress and pushing it away. Compared with 18-year-old me, I’m in a better place, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t fear relapsing, especially in the middle of a pandemic. Adding more people for vaccine priority seems like a big ask in an already messy vaccination rollout, but I feel like it would be the most encouraging public health response. It is both common sense and lifesaving to extend that thinking all the way to vaccination.
Shealyn Kilroy is a freelance journalist living in South Philadelphia. She runs a mental health and music project, theonlysound.com.