Karen Pence and the New Face of Suicide Prevention: The Warmth and Wonder of a Loving Heart

With coronavirus ravaging the nation, suicide and other mental health issues can easily go untreated as resources move toward the physical treatment of people. But as growing levels of uncertainty associated with economic concerns, isolation, and feeling responsible for loved-ones takes its toll, an increase in levels of anxiety and, in turn, mental health complicates the dynamics of a pandemic. 

On Friday, Second Lady Karen Pence announced her new role as lead ambassador for the task force” addressing suicide among veterans and others. In a Twitter release, Mrs. Pence said PREVENTS is “designed to prevent suicide for veterans and all Americans.  COVID-19 has impacted the mental health of many people and…we must take care of ourselves and one another.”

President Trump also expressed concerns that suicide rates will soar during the health crisis and economic downturn.  This preemptive mental-health response comes at a time when the President recently signed the bipartisan $2 trillion coronavirus relief plan. 

The mental health concerns are warranted.  During the 2008 recession, suicides rates increased in the United States and other countries according to a 2012 study in The Lancet.  Observations, a blog post from Scientific American, expressed similar mental health concerns in an April 3 post: “pandemic, plague and now coronavirus are not experienced in a simple way; they come riddled with fear, anxiety, grief and chaos.” It’s those strains on a person’s resolve that lead to mental health issues for families and the reason comprehensive reporting must take place.

Recent gender reports on coronavirus, seen as a disaster for feminism, overlooked important data related to male death rates.  Current gender reporting has led some in the study of gender to worry suicide amongst America's most historically vulnerable groups will go unnoticed during the pandemic. It’s a reason the Pence announcement warrants a look at suicide rates and gender. 

One group particularly susceptible are men 65-and-over who remain more likely to die of coronavirus and 6 times more likely to commit suicide, according to data from the Center for Disease Control. A second group may be males ages 15 to 24, committing suicide at over 4 times the rate of females. Though COVID-19 amongst younger groups is lower, some of the ramifications on mental health associated with the pandemic may lead to more severe reactions 

Gender reporters need to address that men die of suicide at higher rates while simultaneously addressing male and female suicide susceptibilities and its impact on families.  

In 2016, Dr. Mark Sherman wrote in Psychology Today, “if we really care about girls and women, we must address these predominantly male problems with the same fervor we do female ones. Otherwise we will lose not only many many boys, but no small number of girls too.”  This inclusionary observations of males and females in a predominately male problem has a way of informing and saving everyone.

Some articles and informational pieces have surfaced regarding recent suicides during the coronavirus outbreak.  After reading a News One article concerning a few recent suicides and a hotline taking calls about anxiety associated with coronavirus, one leaves the article with the impression that women are more susceptible to suicide during the outbreak:

"The charity collected data showing that among the 1,519 callers who talked about COVID-19, one in five communicated a desire to kill themselves. Anxiety or stress was the number one concern for 43 percent of the people, followed by health concerns for 25 percent, relationship concerns for 21 percent, and loneliness or isolation for 19 percent.'

'The callers worried about COVID-19 tended to be older as well, with 37 percent aged over 45, according to the charity data. More callers tended to be women as well at 66 percent (News One)."

A meaningful element of the article missed an opportunity to discuss the greater number of women, “66 percent,” who feel more comfortable asking for help. It does not address the fewer number of male callers nor gender specifics of those 1 in 5 callers who reported suicidal thoughts.  Data could suggest those callers might well have been women seeking help because men are less likely to seek help.  Only one mention of a male occurs in the News One article, a man with cancer who took his own life after learning he contracted coronavirus. The specific example seems more complicated because the man also had cancer. Two female suicide victims mentioned in the article, a health care worker and a young woman who felt overwhelmed by isolation, seems a direct result of anxieties associated with mental health and coronavirus.

The News One narrative implies something that does not correlate with suicide data and coronavirus in general.  Mentioning men are more likely to die of coronavirus and more likely to commit suicide does not in any way diminish the mental health challenges facing women. It does however pair coronavirus data with suicide data, something mentioned by Adriana Panayi in Observations: 

The looming economic crisis has already claimed its first suicide victim: the German state of Hesse’s finance minister Thomas Schäfer. In a note he left behind, he explained that he was deeply concerned that he would not manage to fulfill the population’s huge expectations for financial aid.  

Much like other articles, Panayi’s article does not insert data to show the difference men and women face.  Not including the data regarding men and their increased susceptibility makes such reporting obtuse to some degree.  It’s a disproportionate narrative. 

We must include data regarding boys and men when topics clearly indicate they are more susceptible, and that does not mean excluding girls and women.  Suicide impacts everyone and journalist need an inclusionary approach that stresses the full data, particularly when boys and men are grossly underrepresented in gender reporting.

We can hope Mrs. Pence pushes for the type of awareness that encourages men to step from the shadows of pain and into the light of supportive mental health: To inform families in a way that empowers men and women to recognize the pain of others and help those in need find what all people crave, “the warmth and wonder of a loving heart” (Albert Camus).

2 comments

  • I’m worried about our men. They are so so susceptible to suicide.

    James
  • Bravo for the Suicide Initiative led by Second Lady Karen Pence. Suicide is the leading cause of intentional death in the US and in industrialized countries. We are shocked by national murder rates, and yet suicide prevalence is three times higher. Men have been disproportionally the victims with M:F suicide ratio in the 3.0-4.5 range in industrialized countries. In divorce, men suicide at 8-10x higher rate- a sure sign of a dysfunctional and biased family justice system. Suicide is a multi-faceted problem that is symptomatic of underlying societal structures. Hopefully the Task Force will shine a spotlight on our approach to family law s a driver of suicide.

    George Piskor

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