Understanding the need for crisis behavioral health services during the pandemic in King County

By Mariko Toyoji and Kris Johnson, Public Health Assessment, Policy Development, and Evaluation

The unprecedented challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic have impacted many King County residents’ mental and physical well-being. Understanding these behavioral health needs is critical to supporting our community’s recovery. Behavioral health refers to the connections between behaviors, health (both physical and mental) and well-being, including substance use and other behaviors that may impact a person’s health.

Public Health – Seattle & King County has added behavioral health information to its data tools examining the COVID-19 pandemic’s impacts on social, economic, and overall health in King County. This new data dashboard examines behavioral health indicators that measure requests for suicide-related crisis services (including calls to crisis centers or 9-1-1) throughout the pandemic.

COVID-19’s impact on behavioral health 

Efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19 have resulted in dramatic increases in the number of King County residents who are unemployed or furloughed, and/or need assistance affording food, utilities, housing, and accessing health care. In addition to social isolation, the disruption of daily life, and grief, these stressors have strained many people’s mental health and coping. These further exacerbate the existing stressors experienced by communities of color, who disproportionately experience violence, police brutality, structural racism and other forms of discrimination.

These factors contribute to the risk of mental health crises, including suicidal thoughts and behaviors, for some people. Public Health seeks to better understand the need for crisis behavioral health services (such as crisis lines and mobile team responders) during the pandemic and recovery period. Looking at the following indicators provides insight on the behavioral health needs of our communities: data from state and local surveys, calls to King County’s behavioral health crisis line, incidents of suspected suicide attempt, ideation or self-harm from King County Emergency Medical Services, and hospital emergency room visits for suicide attempts and suicidal ideation.

Key findings from the data:

  • Washington state survey data show the number of people feeling depressed – a common risk factor for suicide – has increased 34% since this the survey began on April 23, 2020.
  • Those who expect to lose employment or lost employment, those with incomes less than $35,000 per year, and people self-identifying as other or with multiple race categories report higher levels of depression.
  • The number of calls to King County’s behavioral health crisis line increased after the start of social distancing, though only calls in April 2020 were significantly higher than those in the same month of 2019 (12% higher).
  • Suicide-related Emergency Medical Services incidents and emergency department visits declined since the start of the pandemic, mirroring the decline in overall incidents and visits.

These data reflect requests for crisis intervention and do not represent all community behavioral health needs.

Looking forward

Warning signs of suicide

Past pandemics and natural disasters suggest that behavioral health effects resulting from COVID-19 are likely to occur in phases, with increases in population mental distress expected this fall, 6-9 months after the pandemic’s start.  These measures will continue to be monitored over the coming months given the expected increases in mental health concerns.  To learn more about the data and findings, please visit our data dashboard and brief report.

It’s important for each of us to be aware of and familiarize ourselves with the common warning signs of suicide risk. If you see warning signs in someone else or yourself, please reach out for help. Asking for help in a crisis can be difficult for many of us, and it is one of the best ways to protect ourselves when having suicidal thoughts.

Additional Resources:

  • Crisis Line: If there is no immediate physical danger, call Crisis Connections at 206-461-3222 or 1-866-427-4747, or visit  www.CrisisConnections.org.
  • If you or someone you know is considering harming themselves, contact the 24/7 free and confidential National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Originally published on July 16, 2020.