The sober facts of avoidable waste of precious human lives through suicide remain incontrovertible and sad. A million suicide deaths occur globally every year, with about 20 million attempted suicides occurring in the same time frame. This implies that every 40 seconds, a human life is lost through suicide, somewhere on this planet. Yet we know that suicide is ALWAYS preventable. Thus, September 10 every year has been set aside to mark the World Suicide Prevention Day.
Furthermore, every suicide death has been estimated to affect, on the average, at least 138 people across various spheres of interaction – such as at school/work, friends, family members, neighbours, and so on. With nearly a million suicides every year, that implies that about 138 million people are closely affected by suicide deaths every year. And in 10 years, 10 million lives would have been lost and 1.38 billion people would have been closely affected. It should be immediately clear, that suicide prevention justifiably, is now a PUBLIC HEALTH PRIORITY.
The very first step towards suicide prevention is identifying the warning signs of suicidal behavior. While some suicide deaths are impulsive reactions, 80% of those who eventually commit suicide would have given some signs of their intentions before they eventually carry it out. These signs include expressions such as “I am not good enough”, “I simply can’t cope”. Other signs may include expressing hopelessness, giving out valuables or talking about what to do if they are no longer alive, social withdrawal and isolation, turning to drugs and alcohol to drown sorrows, history of impulsiveness or previous suicide attempt. When several of these signs are present in an individual, the risk of suicidal behavior is high.
What should we do if we recognize these warning signs?
i). Individuals: At the individual level, if you recognize these signs and suspect the individual is at risk, do not dismiss your suspicions. Do not leave them alone but ensure someone is with them at all times. Let them know you are concerned about them. Condition yourself to listen to them, rather than delivering lengthy sermons and admonitions. Do not show alarm or exhibit judgmental behavior. Ask specific questions to find out if they are actively planning to do something. Presence of specific planning is an indication of serious intent and should instantly be a red flag to take action. Reassure them that there is no need to be ashamed or embarrassed, as it is not a sign of weakness or cowardice. Lastly, please go the extra mile to ensure they get professional evaluation from a qualified mental health professional (psychiatrist or clinical psychologist). This helps them to navigate the maze of emotional pain they may be going through.
ii). Community: At the community and public level, public awareness and education to understand suicide and other mental health challenges as well reducing the associated pervasive stigma is helpful. In this regard, the public awareness campaigns by the Suicide Prevention Initiative in Nigeria (SURPIN), as well as the Campus awareness rally by the Asido Foundation at the University of Ibadan, are especially helpful.
iii). Media: The media also has an important role to play in suicide prevention. Glamourizing and splashing all the gory details should be avoided as much as possible. While it is necessarily important news, such sad occurrences also provide an important avenue to provide education about risk factors and where to seek help. Emphasis should be on the fact that individuals who are depressed can recover and turn things around in their life…with professional help and treatment. The privacy of family members should be protected, and efforts to reduce associated stigma amplified. Lastly, the media has a duty to prevent ‘Werther Effect’ or copycat suicides, following a widely-publicized suicide.
iv). Schools: The school environment should allow all students to flourish, learn and develop – regardless of their individual temperaments or dispositions. Bullying, taunting and public humiliations can be devastating for adolescents with fragile egos and low self-esteem.
vi). Social Support Network: Lastly, having a support network such as friendly and caring neighbors; religious support groups; close circle of friends and colleagues at work; and involvement in social activities such as sports are also helpful and protective.
In conclusion, your mental health is in your hands. Let us all watch out for our emotional wellbeing, as well as that of everyone we interact with at home, in the neighborhood and at work. Times are difficult and frustrations are rife, but as human beings, everyone appreciates a helping hand when they are down. Let us cultivate the habit of being there for each other – thus promoting our mental health and reducing the tendencies towards suicidal behavior.