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I-TEAM: Suicide rates increase during COVID-19 pandemic-stricken year

Published: Feb. 8, 2021 at 6:29 PM EST|Updated: Feb. 14, 2021 at 9:54 AM EST
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - Hope is mounting as more vaccines are being approved to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, and the I-Team found that hope can’t come quickly enough.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, experts warned suicide rates could climb. Nearly a year later, we found they have across our area.

This painful truth is hitting all too close to home for our friend and colleague, Dakota Watson.

“He was everything you’d expect in a little brother,” Watson said.

That ”little brother” nickname stuck for Parker Dubois.

Watson says Parker was his best friend’s younger brother-and as they grew older, Parker became a best friend, too -- even serving as a groomsman in his wedding.

“I knew I had a little brother when all those days of begging him not to tell on us, turned into begging him to come with us,” Watson said.

“He was definitely the bright spot in the room all the time, which is really crazy thinking about it now because you know you don’t realize what people are really thinking and going through on a day to day basis.”

Watson texted with him the night he died, checking in on him and planning a trip to Augusta, something look forward to.

“I was going to pick up lunch for my wife actually. And I just dropped down to my knees,” Watson said.

Parker Dubois was just 22 years old.

“That’s unfortunately not the first time I’ve gotten that phone call and it’s by far the worst phone call you’re ever gonna get,” Watson said.

Watson’s grandfather died by suicide, too, a few years ago. Dubois was there for Watson through that pain -- even walking with him in a suicide prevention walk.

“The fact is you really don’t have any idea what anybody is going through,” Watson said.

The National Suicide Hotline hears that hidden pain every day. Our I-Team found calls in Georgia and South Carolina were up last year. In just the first six months of 2020, Georgians in crisis made nearly 25,000 -- 24,519 calls -- to the hotline. South Carolinians made more than 10,000 calls at 10,199.

While we will probably never know all of the layers and complexities that could make someone this full of life -- end theirs at such a young age, Watson thinks the timing with Dubois certainly could have played a role.

“I do think being in isolation for almost a year not being able to hang out with your friends your family not being able to be surrounded by people you love all the time it really is taking a toll on millions of people,” Watson said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, by late June of last year, just 3 months into our collective COVID-19 ordeal, 40 percent of adults in the U.S. reported struggling with mental health or substance abuse. Eleven percent reported seriously considering suicide within the last 30 days. That number doubled compared to adults in 2018 -- 4.8 percent.

Scientists also noted an increased risk for suicidal thoughts among minorities -- Hispanics at 18 percent, Blacks at 15 percent -- essential workers at 21 percent, and unpaid caregivers for adults at 30 percent.

Suicidal thoughts in COVID were “significantly higher” at 25 percent in younger adults aged 18-24 like Dubois, who had also struggled with mental health and substance abuse before the pandemic.

“He had a couple of bumps in the road with mental health when he was in college and that’s kind of when we started noticing some stuff,” Watson said. “That was probably about two years ago I’d say. We thought he was doing a lot better because he was at least externally.”

So many of our families here at home are facing the same reality right now. The I-Team found suicides in Richmond County rose 62 percent in 2020 from the year before, including 2 17-year-olds and a 19-year-old.

Aiken County reported a 17 percent increase in suicides last year.

“I don’t really know what the answer is right now. I don’t think anyone does because the situation is so unique,” Watson said.

“We will get through this eventually. This pandemic will end at some point and hopefully, we will be able to be surrounded by people we love soon.”

That message of hope is critical right now. Experts say self-care is more important than ever.

Diet, exercise, and sleep, but most importantly, if you show warning signs like substance abuse, feelings of helplessness or hopelessness, suicidal thoughts or actions, asking for help could save your life.

“We would have done anything in the world to have taken the pain away from that young man,” Watson said.

We also reached out to Columbia County and they were unable to get us their updated suicide numbers from last year.

But if you or someone you know is struggling, the National Suicide Prevention lifeline is open 24 hours a day. That number is 800-273-8255.

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