A tragedy that needs to be contained

Suicide: A social problem not an individual one
By Dr. Wijaya Godakumbura

Injuries kill 5.2 million people globally every year and 1 million of them are suicides. This number is higher than the combined total of deaths from war and homicides. There is one suicide every 40 seconds in the globe, and the number who attempt suicide is believed to be 10-20 times the number of suicides. Suicide is among the three leading causes of death worldwide.

This shows the gravity of this global health problem. There is a small percentage of people who believe that talking about suicide would induce vulnerable people to attempt suicide, but experts disagree. We know that awareness of a risk does help to avert it – e.g. media reports on deaths caused by lightning and warnings published in the media do save lives. However, media publicity on suicides has to be done with care, avoiding certain unnecessary details.

Sri Lanka has a high suicide rate, over 4000 suicides annually with a ratio of 20 per 100,000 of the population while the global ratio is 16. This article contains extracts from the book ‘Community Suicide Prevention’ published recently by the Karolinska Institute of Sweden and from the Sri Lanka Police website.

‘Suicidality’ is thinking, planning and attempting suicide, and finally killing oneself. Thinking of suicide is now believed to be - A normal process; every one does it now and then!

Helpful; when there is hurt, anxiety and depression, it may open up other options to show that life is valuable and it is “possible to live”.

A message like a fire alarm telling the person, “You have a serious problem. Hurry. Solve it soon because your life is in danger”.

“Thinking of suicide can be dangerous too. If the problem remains unsolved too long, the person may decide on a place, time and a method. A small event can act as a trigger. Suicidal patients unfortunately do not realize that they are mentally ill, therefore may not seek timely psychiatric advice with grave consequences” (‘Community Suicide Prevention’ (CSP) - 2010).

“Suicide attempts are indicative of severe emotional distress, unhappiness and / or mental illness. Like the waves caused when a stone is thrown to a pond, suicide hurts not only the family members, but also the other relatives, friends, neighbourhood, community and the society. So, we all share responsibility for their prevention. Alcohol is implicated in suicides as in other types of injuries. Suicidal ideas may be inspired by the suicide of a hero such as a pop star or an actor. As suicidal thoughts may be contagious, they may also be spread via the internet” (CSP – 2010).

Common causes of suicide

Economic burdens in a family are a common cause. Broken love affairs, failing examinations, strained relationships with parents or children, extreme shame are other causes. Cleopatra and Adolf Hitler were two well known figures who took their own lives when they lost all that they had.

Suicide Prevention: “Loneliness arises when painful problems remain over long periods," says Prof. Jan Beskow.

“The message the brain then gets is “No one loves me. I am of no use, as if I am dead. So it is better to be really dead and be free of that pain.Suicidal ideas are contagious.”

“The core of suicide prevention is to welcome the suicidal person back to the community as a respected and valuable person” (CSP - 2010). There are three types of Prevention.

  • Primary prevention through educating people on suicide and promoting both mental health and communication in the society.
  • Secondary Prevention is the identification of groups of people with a higher suicidal behaviour and early intervention.
  • Tertiary Prevention is the treatment of those who attempted suicide and attention to their family members and those of suicide victims. (CSP - 2010).

Suicide prevention activities

For many years, the NGO ‘Sumithrayo’, has been providing confidential emotional support free to people in distress and despair. They can be reached on 011-2692909 and on Yet, more suicide prevention activities in Sri Lanka are needed, perhaps, a ‘Suicide Prevention Society’ like the Cancer Society and the Child Protection Society. I hope some public spirited people would initiate action in this regard. The families of those who lost a loved one through suicide could take the lead.

The writer is a surgeon who developed an interest in suicide prevention after attending the International Safe Communities Conference held recently in Korea. His main interest is the prevention of bottle lamp burns for which he has won international awards.

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