Floridians with no history of depression are suffering amid coronavirus
Darry Tunick thought watching his wife die of sepsis two days after their son was born was the worst grief he could ever experience.
Eight years later, unable to access unemployment benefits months after losing his income because of coronavirus shutdowns, he thinks he may have been wrong.
“I told my youngest he couldn’t have a glass of chocolate milk one night because we needed the milk for breakfast in the morning,” he said, breaking down into heaving sobs. “I never thought I’d be that low.”
Now, he says he struggles with dark thoughts about ending his life. The two-month cushion to delay his rent payment has passed. His savings have run dry. The family is facing eviction from their Davie home, and their water and electricity are scheduled to be turned off June 12, he said.
“They are pushing people to the point, where . . . I’m just trying not to do something stupid,” he said of the hopelessness that now permeates every fiber of his being. “I never thought I’d feel pain like I did when my wife died.”
That pain — depression, he calls it — stems from Tunick’s inability to provide financially for the four children between the ages of 8 and 18 he is now raising alone.
His story is all too common. Anxiety, depression, feelings of helplessness and suicidal thoughts are exacerbated in times of great stress, like the coronavirus pandemic, experts say. Even those who have never experienced mental health issues are vulnerable in such trying times.
“It’s the fear of the unknown,” said Payton Reid, a licensed mental health counselor at the Florida Suicide Prevention Coalition. “This [pandemic] is something new that our country and our world is experiencing that we’ve never experienced before. Things are changing day-by-day and people are afraid. There is an increase in people having psychotic episodes because of the stress.”
Statistics supporting that statement are staggering. The Disaster Distress Helpline, a nationwide sub-network of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, in April reported a 486 percent increase in calls over a two-month period and an 890 percent increase over the same time last year.
While the organization has not officially attributed those increases to coronavirus, it said the most common caller complaints are feelings of isolation, financial woes and anxiety over the possibility of catching COVID-19.
The American Psychological Association in a May 18 publication called this combination of stresses a “perfect storm” for suicide risk. For some, these worries can also externalize in other detrimental ways, such as substance abuse, child abuse or spousal abuse.
Financial stress, in particular, is widespread. By mid-April, more than 60 percent of Floridians were already reporting concerns over their ability to meet financial obligations over the following three months, a Sunshine State Survey by the University of South Florida and Nielsen showed.
Such is the case for Tunick, a television installer whose troubles began when he lost his job in March. Penniless over two months later, he said he spends exasperating days on the phone and internet, trying to reach anyone at the state level to help with his unpaid claim.
“I don’t know what will become of us before any help arrives,” he said. “I'm so depressed… they say hold on, but I can't — there's nothing left to hold.”
Where’s the money? ’I have yet to receive one penny’
In a state where almost 14 percent of the population subsisted below the poverty line before coronavirus, an additional 2 million Floridians have filed for unemployment as a result of the pandemic. For many, the loss of even one week’s pay, let alone several months, can be financially and emotionally devastating.
“I’ve been filing taxes every year and doing things the right way, living from paycheck-to-paycheck, but getting by,” Tunick said. “Out of nowhere, they close the country down, they tell us hang in there, hold on, we’ll get through this. But to this day, I have yet to receive one penny.”
His faith and immense love for his children have prevented Tunick from harming himself, he said, but his depression is crippling, and he sees no light at the end of the tunnel. Weeping and gasping for breath, he says he fears the state will attempt to take his children away if he calls a suicide hotline.
“The goal of the state is to keep families together, and asking for help does not create a situation where they are going to tear a family apart,” said Jennifer Tomko, a psychotherapist at Clarity Health Solutions in Jupiter. “The kids will be healthier if dad’s healthier.”
Tomko said the far-reaching mental health effects on people from all walks of life over the last few months may actually help de-stigmatize treatment. Making that first call to a counselor or crisis center, while sometimes incredibly difficult, is key to regaining control of one’s thoughts and actions, she said.
“The goal of therapy is to empower people who are in a crisis mode of fight, flight or freeze,” Tomko said. “Sometimes we can’t do that on our own because we are in a loop in our heads of how bad it is. When patients come in, it’s like I’m shaking up a snow globe — letting new ideas come so everything settles back into a healthier place.”
Tomko said it is important that anyone taking antidepressants or benzodiazepines does not stop taking them in the event they lose their insurance or ability to pay for medication. She suggests patients reach out to their physician to see if a payment plan, sliding scale charges or other methods are available to obtain medication free or inexpensively.
If someone absolutely has no other option, Delray Beach psychiatrist Dr. Irl Extein recommends weaning off antidepressants or benzodiazepines gradually by cutting the dosage in half and then half again every two weeks for six weeks.
“In general, you wouldn’t want to do it abruptly, but you could tier it over a few weeks,” he said. “If you stopped them cold turkey, you could get pretty sick or have a seizure or something.”
For some people, reaching out for help in any fashion can be dismaying.
One woman, a Palm Beach County real estate agent for 34 years, said she has been contemplating suicide for weeks. Because of her fear of being ostracized by friends, co-workers and clients, she spoke to the Palm Beach Post on the condition of anonymity.
“My dog needs food and a vet,” she said. “I am drowning in no food, no transportation. I lost everything due to COVID-19, and I need help as promised.”
The “promise” to which she is referring is the $600 federal unemployment subsidy that she has been unable to access. She said her car was repossessed, and she was forced to borrow $100 from her adult son for food.
“I’m so ashamed,” she said. “Do I have thoughts that I wish I were dead right now? Yeah.”
She said that despite writing, emailing and calling state and federal agencies for weeks trying to get assistance with her unemployment claim, the only response she received was a referral to a suicide hotline. She has not called the hotline because it is not counseling she needs. It’s money.
“Money, and someone to say that they gave a damn if I live or die,” she said.
Breaking down into tears, she says she is glad she does not own a gun.
“I was, and may be, ready to check out, because this isn’t the life I've ever had or wanted,” she said. “I have said to anybody who will listen to me that there are going to be an inordinate number of people who die from their own hands and not from coronavirus.”
U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch of Boca Raton for months has championed unemployed Floridians like Tunick and Adams — broke, frustrated and suffering — who call his office by the hundreds begging for help with the crippled unemployment system.
“The enormity of this crisis and the staggering numbers that we talk about, whether its human loss or economic loss, sometimes obscures the fact that every single one of these numbers is a person,” he said. “And we can’t forget that.”
Despite months of calls, emails and letters to Governor Ron DeSantis, Deutch said he has received little response. He knows some people are desperate and urges anyone who is flailing emotionally to reach out for help.
“The main message is always you are not alone,” he said of resources statewide that can provide emergency food, housing and counseling. “The community wants to be there to help.”
DeSantis did not return a request from the Palm Beach Post to speak for this article.
This story originally published to palmbeachpost.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.