Skis, t-shirts, sunshine, and snow. Spring skiing is a Maine favorite. My brother and I relished this time of year as kids. We’d ski the backwoods hill and practice for real mountains. At age 12, he piled the snow into a sketchy jump. I was only 7, but Benjamin told me I could do it, so I did. All I needed for encouragement was his belief.

Spring skiing is a time of possibilities. There’s tangible energy in the absence of icy winds and skiers relax on picnic tables instead of huddled inside. Like many Mainers, Benjamin loved Spring skiing; and like many Mainers, Benjamin struggled from depression.

On September 7th, 2020, at age 31, Benjamin took his own life. On that day, I lost my brother, friend, adventure partner, and superhero; the person whose belief in me made anything possible.

Over half of all male violent deaths are attributable to suicide. Maine’s suicide rates are notoriously higher than the national average. Men are disproportionately affected by suicide and Maine men are drastically more affected than US men in general. Increasing evidence shows that while women more often experience depression, men are significantly more likely to commit suicide through lethal means.

In the grips of an isolating global pandemic and tense political climate, incidence of suicide is urgently prevalent. With widespread stress, fear, and loneliness, US reports of mental health challenges are higher than ever. Modelling studies predict COVID-19 to increase suicide rates by 1-145%, with a disproportionate impact on men.

I carry the unbearable weight of Benjamin’s suicide with me every day; wishing he had known how loved and needed he is. We have failed too many to idly watch while our loved ones are crushed under the weight of depression. It is critical to act now and save Maine men before more families are fractured from suicide.

Feelings of hopelessness, entrapment, anxiety, loss, and loneliness have erupted during COVID-19 and are closely associated with suicide. COVID-19 has disrupted routines, relationships, and coping mechanisms that many relied on to manage mental health. Men are disproportionately impacted by these emotions due to socially constructed gender roles driving the suppression of emotional needs. When faced with the recent onslaught of emotional burden, men are less likely to seek help.

COVID-19 has also exacerbated existing risk factors for suicide including pre-existing depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, financial insecurity, unemployment, and substance misuse. An increased atmosphere of negativity and hatred pervades so much of our everyday media and conversations. Turmoil over political and social beliefs intensifies physical isolation by weakening otherwise supportive connections. Evidence suggests increased substance abuse during COVID-19, which is closely linked to suicide. Men are particularly more likely to self-medicate when faced with stressors.

Perhaps most importantly, social distancing restrictions that protect us also limit the quantity and quality of critical interactions. More time at home due to remote work and restricted recreation isolates those struggling with mental health from their support systems. It also intensifies relationship violence. Isolation from loved ones is a key sign of emotional abuse and COVID-19 restrictions make it easier for abusive partners to isolate men.

Some may argue that mental health services are more readily available through the emphasis on telehealth and social media communities. However, accessibility of services and support does not utilization.

It’s also important to note that the impact of COVID-19 on suicide is an estimation due to it’s ongoing nature. Suicide is not unique to COVID-19 and won’t disappear when it’s over. However, the social, physical, and mental toll of COVID-19 has brought suicide to the forefront of public attention and we must act on it.

Prevention recommendations prioritize professional intervention.[4][5] Mental health services play a critical role, but we, as Mainers, also need to do better. Look for signs of depression around you. Reach out to friends and family. Remind them how loved they are. Ask earnestly how they are and what they need.

If you are struggling and cannot access a therapist, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255). If you are worried about someone, call the Maine Statewide Crisis Hotline for advice (1-888-568-1112).

The only regret you will have is not having done enough.

Mainers are a proud stock, having survived the toughest times and coldest winters with our rugged sense of individualism and grit, but Mainers are also some of the most deeply genuine people you will meet. We must not only view the pandemic as another time to tough it out alone. We must rely on the relationships and authenticity that make “people from Maine” true Mainers. Uphold connections, practice empathy, and act with kindness. In these trying times, prioritize the mental wellbeing of yourself and your loved ones.

That is how we survive. It’s how we save ourselves. It’s how we save each other.

Taren McGray is a Maine native, public health student at Emory Rollins School of Public and bereaved sibling of suicide.

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