A sudden rise in reported suicides this week has alarmed Knox County's mayor and the director of the health department.
Eight Knox Countians committed suicide in the last two days, Mayor Glenn Jacobs' office announced on Thursday. Knox County Health Department Director Martha Buchanan appeared shaken as she spoke to reporters at midday, about 45 minutes after the information was released.
"That's startling and distribing, and really, really challenging," Buchanan said. "If there's anybody out there who's struggling..."
Buchanan paused, fighting back tears, before she resumed speaking. Her voice shook with emotion.
"...I encourage you to reach out. Your pastor, your friend, the Tennessee Suicide Hotline...there are mental health providers in our community that we know stand ready to talk and counsel and comfort people during these challenging times."
For context, Knox County saw 83 suicides in 2019. The eight recorded in the last two days therefore represent about ten percent of that total. It is not clear what caused the suicide spike. Buchanan said an evidence-based link between the suicides and fear, loss of job, or some other COVID-related could not be confirmed.
Mayor Glenn Jacobs implied a connection in a press release.
"[The suicides] make me wonder if what we are doing now is really the best approach,” Jacobs said. “We have to determine how we can respond to COVID-19 in a way that keeps our economy intact, keeps people employed and empowers them with a feeling of hope and optimism – not desperation and despair.”
The balance of the press briefing was dedicated to updates on COVID-19 in Knox County. Buchanan said there are thirty confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the county. Eleven people have recovered, and six are hospitalized.
Buchanan also responded to claims that the novel coronavirus is less of a threat than seasonal influenza.
"COVID-19 is a brand-new virus for humans," Buchanan said. "We don't have any immune memory. If I get the flu, I might make a couple of people sick. If you get COVID-19, you're going to make maybe three to five people sick. We're more vulnerable to it."
Additionally, Buchanan said, more people in certain populations are dying from COVID-19 than from the flu.
Buchanan also reported local hospitals continue to cancel elective procedures and increasing what's called "surge capacity." That will allow medical facilities to better respond to an expected rise in severe cases of the novel coronavirus that require hospitalization.
Resources for suicide prevention:
National Suicide Prevention Hotline
Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network
Contact Care Line
Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services