Around the world 2020 has been an extraordinarily challenging year during which lives lost to the COVID -19 pandemic are well over a million and counting. For my part, since the start of the pandemic, I have been immersed in providing online webinars, trainings, and other presentations on suicide prevention. Most of these have focused on clinical suicide prevention now that mental health has perforce been moved to online delivery.
Driven by concerns related to the rapid spread of COVID-19, our training company staged a series of free webinars starting in early March focusing on providing CAMS via online delivery (https://cams-care.com/about-cams/cams-COVID-19-response/). Literally hundreds of providers from around the world attended the webinars live and thousands more downloaded the recorded versions of these presentations along with various free resource materials provided on our website.
This series was followed by a national webinar convened by the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC) that I did with Drs. Barbara Stanley and Ursula Whiteside in April about suicide-focused care during the pandemic (https://edc.adobeconnect.com/_a1002235226/pelhg9o49s1n/?proto=true) and thousands registered for the synchronous presentation with thousands more downloading the recording and materials.
Over the summer CAMS-care launched a new series on suicide prevention featuring leaders in the field, including Drs. Sherry Molock, Yeates Conwell, and Cheryl King (with more to come in 2021). As fall came around a flurry of webinars ensued—a major presentation to 1200 members of the National Register of Health Service Psychologists in an event co-sponsored by CAMS-care. There was then a series of three webinars again co-sponsored by the National Register and CAMS-care featuring three former students from my lab who are now early-career clinical psychologists. Attended by hundreds of psychology graduate students, my junior colleagues Drs. Blaire Ehret, Samantha Chalker, and Josephine Au put on a dazzling display of presentations with content focused on clinical suicide prevention. I happily took a support role in these webinars serving as facilitator and managing the fascinating Q&A sessions (https://cams-care.com/resources/blog/generativity/).
I also had the pleasure of presenting plenary and keynote addresses at various international conferences in Italy, the Netherlands, Canada, and Israel throughout the fall. Virtual Psychiatry Grand Rounds were given to the Washington Hospital Center, Stanford School of Medicine, and the Toronto School of Medicine. A recent and final webinar of the year on risk management and clinical suicidology was co-sponsored by The Trust and CAMS-care. This was a particular joy for me as I was teamed up with Dr. Eric Harris (psychologist/attorney for The Trust, which is the country’s largest insurance provider for psychologists). Eric is an old friend dating back to my graduate school days and he is gifted in his ability to think about risk management in a remarkably sensible manner. For example, Eric’s sage advice should a clinician lose a patient to suicide: BE A HUMAN BEING! (risk management/legal concerns can follow thereafter). In attendance were 1,700 psychologists with superb questions about clinical suicide prevention, the law, and managing risk (https://parma.trustinsurance.com/Workshops-Webinars/CAMS-care-Preventing-Suicide).
The takeaway? To say this has been a “remarkable year” does not begin to scratch the surface of how utterly surreal this pandemically “plagued” year has been. If you had told me a year ago that the world would soon be consumed by a deadly respiratory virus snuffing out the lives of well over a million souls, I would not have believed it. The notion that I would be completely homebound, wearing a mask everywhere, ceasing travel, and providing clinical care, supervision, teaching, and presentations 100% online would have been unimaginable. Finally, if you had told me in the wake of a worldwide lethal pandemic that a handful of vaccines, some with 95% efficacy, would be developed within 11 months, I would have laughed out loud because I know that heretofore effective vaccines literally take years to develop. And at its best the yearly flu vaccines have an efficacy ranging 40-60%—but 95%? That is nuts!
Never in my sixty plus years has there been a series of more remarkable—unbelievable really—worldwide events, which has been our collective reality for the better part of the last year. There were moments in the later 1960s that were scary, but nothing like this. To be sure, there is still a long a way to go to truly be on the other side a flattened pandemic curve. Shots in the arms of these rather fragile vaccines to enough people to achieve herd immunity and the true elimination of the COVID-19 scourge is still many months off. But for the first time this year there is a genuine glimmer of hope that we will actually get our lives back, no doubt looking vastly different by virtue of all that has happened at the hands of this worldwide pandemic and its ultimate aftermath.
Notwithstanding the unfortunate politicization of science, it is hard to think of a time when science has been more within our collective awareness. One might consider the U.S. moonshot as a competitor to the amazing development of COVID-19 vaccines, but that achievement did impact every person on planet Earth. In turn, mental health awareness has been elevated to a whole new level of awareness because of massive virus-related deaths, job losses, a tanking world economy, evictions, food insecurity, and the malaise that comes from social isolation and losing full access to the cherished joys of “normal” life (in-room teaching, weddings, graduations, celebrating holidays, etc.).
According to SAMHSA survey data we know that mental health problems and substance use are up, but we do not yet know if suicide deaths will increase accordingly, making the pandemic a wretched double tragedy. Thus, the awareness of science and mental health has perhaps created a unique moment wherein the prospect of genuine progress in suicide prevention such that clinical providers may come to embrace the inherent promise and virtues of clinical suicide prevention.
After all these years in the field I am frankly somewhat skeptical that mental health providers are now suddenly interested in learning how to provide effective care for people who are suicidal by using scientifically supported approaches. Yet my experiences the past ten months have left me wondering: Are people logging into these webinars and presentations because they are free or just for the continuing education credits? Or could it be that they are actually interested in helping to save lives from suicide through proven effective care?
Only time will tell, but upon reflection it does honestly feel like perhaps we might be turning an imperceptible corner where mental health and science (and the importance of randomized controlled trials) might be getting their long overdue moment in the spotlight. If this is true, we might look back on 2020 as a turning point in our collective pursuit of finding lives worth living post-pandemically. In turn, a whole new level of professional interest to clinically help those who seriously entertain giving up on life just might follow.
I genuinely believe in the power of hope to make life-saving differences. And It is my fervent hope that a year from now life will be quite different post-pandemically… better for us all and for our patients as well.