In mid-March, COVID-19 showed up in Idaho’s Blaine County and wreaked havoc. The coronavirus spread quickly through the area’s idyllic towns, resulting in one of the nation’s highest infection rates.
The public health wildfire prompted a shelter-in-place order from Gov. Brad Little. Now, months removed from the outbreak’s peak, the area is still feeling the effects. With in-person gatherings still limited, postponed or canceled, the need for social bonding has soared.
“We recognize that COVID-19 caused limitations in human connection and created concerns around physical health, economic stability and mental health,” said Erin Pfaeffle, St. Luke’s Wood River director of community engagement.
Over the past three years, Pfaeffle and a group of community partners with the 5B Suicide Prevention Alliance have provided dozens of presentations on the “Five Signs of Emotional Suffering” and the “Healthy Habits of Emotional Wellbeing,” resources from the national suicide prevention initiative, the Campaign to Change Direction.
The 5B team has presented its adaptive “Know the Five Signs/Healthy Habits” presentation to more than 2,000 people in the Wood River area, including every local middle school and high school student in the last two years.
Now, without access to gatherings and groups of people, the organization has had to alter course, recording its presentation and seeking out people and organizations interested in virtual education.
“We wanted to create better access for people and organizations who want to know more about not only knowing how to recognize the signs of emotional distress in themselves and others, but also on how to build healthy habits, especially at a time when building healthy habits is really critical to our wellbeing,” said Pfaeffle, a licensed master social worker.
The five signs that can be indicators of emotional distress and potential suicidal ideation include personality change, agitation, withdrawal, poor self-care and hopelessness. The recording is about 45 minutes and includes links to additional resources.
“Listening to the ‘Know the Five Signs/Healthy Habits’ presentation is one of the ways we think will create common language and create an awareness in our community that it’s OK to reach out and ask for help, and that mental health is just as important as our physical health,” Pfaeffle said.
In 2017, two deaths by suicide in a short period time in the rural area took a toll. One community member simply could not stand by, rallying local organizations and bringing in an internationally renowned suicide prevention speaker to talk to the community.
That dedicated effort resulted in the launch of the 5B Suicide Prevention Alliance.
“This started by one person saying, ‘I want to make a difference. This isn’t good for our community. We have to stand up and make a change,’” Pfaeffle said.
The alliance now features a variety of engaged community organizations, including the Blaine County Sheriff’s Office, Blaine County School District, private schools, National Alliance on Mental Illness, The Crisis Hotline, The Advocates, Blaine County Chaplaincy, The Senior Connection, The Hunger Coalition and more.
In Blaine County, Pfaeffle noted the strain of COVID-19 on families, the medical facilities, local schools, and the economy has been immense. Yet, she remains positive.
“What has come from this is a very clear picture that Blaine County is an incredibly special place to live; that people care for each other; that we wear masks because we care for each other; that neighbors help neighbors; that our social service and philanthropic, nonprofit organizations have done phenomenal work to continue to serve people in need; that we have all become creative and thoughtful in how we have maintained our human connections; and that this community is incredibly resilient.”
For more information, please visit 5balliance.org.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please call or text the Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-208-398-4357 or visit idahosuicideprevention.org.
Daniel Mediate works in the St. Luke’s Communications department.