World Suicide Prevention Day is organised by the International Association for Suicide Prevention and was observed on 10 September as a day dedicated to raising global awareness around the issue of suicide and promoting suicide prevention. The day, which has been observed annually since 2003, is an initiative to raise awareness of suicide as a universal challenge and to encourage friends, family and communities to question the stigma associated with mental health, suicide and suicidal behaviour.
Why is suicide a universal concern?
Suicide is a complex problem that affects millions of people globally, with long-lasting effects on the families, friends, colleagues and communities involved. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 800 000 people die as the result of suicide each year. This translates to a suicide every 40 seconds. According to 2019 WHO statistics, suicide is the second leading cause of death in people between the ages of 15 and 29. This is higher than interpersonal violence, which is the third-highest cause of death in young people. There are some concerns, however, that suicide statistics may be inaccurate due to underreporting. A 2014 study on ‘Suicidal Behaviour Across the African Continent’, cites that, because suicide in Africa often carries a religious or cultural stigma, it is often hidden from the public or classified under a different cause of death.
Who is at risk?
Suicide, according to the WHO, is strongly linked to mental health problems, such as depression, and alcohol and drug problems. Individuals experiencing abuse, trauma, violence, loss, and a sense of isolation are often at risk for suicidal behaviour. Suicide is also linked to impulsive decisions caused by a difficulty in dealing with life stresses such as abuse, academic problems, financial problems, illness and relationship breakups. For example, the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), a non-profit and non-governmental organisation dedicated to addressing the challenges of mental health issues among individuals, reported that calls on their mental health crisis helpline doubled during the COVID-19 lockdown. This includes those minorities and individuals who are part of vulnerable and discriminated groups, such as refugees or queer persons within hostile environments. It is also important to understand that suicides are often preceded by suicide attempts. According to the American Psychiatric Association, the strongest risk factor for suicide is a previous suicide attempt, as those who have previously tried to take their own lives are more likely to attempt to do so again.
What is suicidal behaviour?
SADAG reports that in South Africa alone there are 23 suicides and 230 suicide attempts recorded a day. According to the organisation, people who commit suicide talk about it either indirectly or directly. A person contemplating suicide could, for example, make jokes about it. Some other, subtle signs may include saying goodbye to friends and family, giving away one’s possessions, and suddenly writing a will. The WHO points out behaviour such as browsing the internet for means to take one’s own life and self-criticism or statements about one’s perceived worthlessness, for example, “no one will miss me when I am gone”. Other signs to look out for include changes in personality and a loss of interest in self-care, such as maintaining personal hygiene, which shows that the individual is not coping well with their personal problems.
Seeking assistance for people with suicidal thoughts
SADAG encourages people to speak more openly and matter-of-factly about suicide without being judgemental. It is important to show interest in the problem and extend support by being willing to listen and allowing the suicidal person to express their feelings. SADAG cautions individuals to take their disclosure seriously, but also to avoid acting shocked or panicked when talking about suicide, as this may distance the suicidal person and discourage them from speaking about it further. It is also important to avoid long periods of self-isolation and avoid drugs and alcohol, as they may reinforce negative thoughts and feelings. Further advice includes not daring the suicidal person to take their own life, debating whether suicide is right or wrong, or lecturing the suicidal person on the value of life, as it may make them feel guilty.
A study published this year, titled Trends in Suicide Mortality in South Africa, 1997 to 2016, indicated that suicide mortality is generally higher among men than among women, with the suicide rate of South African men being roughly five times higher than that of women in 2016. The study attributed this disparity to women being more likely to report and talk about suicidal thoughts. The Canada-based emotional and crisis support organisation, Youth Space, also encourages people to be more open when talking about suicide as it can provide some sort of therapeutic relief for those contemplating suicide. They also encourage individuals to persuade suicidal persons to seek additional help. This includes consulting a professional, such as a general practitioner, to discuss anti-depressant medication options, visiting the on-campus counselling available for students, or visiting a psychologist for more in-depth intervention.
Persons battling with suicidal thoughts can also access advice, intervention, and support through mental health helplines that offer them free counselling, referrals, and support. Friends, family and colleagues can seek additional support for suicidal persons. For example, SADAG has a counselling call centre open 7 days a week, 365 days a year, which operates in all official languages.
Some of the operational suicide helplines include:
ADAG Suicide Crisis Line: 0800 567 567
Lifeline: 0861 322 322
Mental health line: 011 234 4837
Cipla 24hr Mental Health Helpline: 0800 456 789
South Africa Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0800 21 22 23 or
0800 12 13 14
Photo: Madhuri Rambaran