Debunking myths about suicide
Two things need to be said about the recent suicide of a university student.
One, her death will have a higher meaning if it results in a heightened awareness of suicide prevention. Two, we should take a closer look at the system that—perhaps—has contributed to the depression that caused her to take her life. Note the emphasis on “perhaps.”
All the mental health experts will tell you that suicide is never the result of a single event. There is a series of events, a confluence of factors that lead to suicide.
Blaming, which is a normal reaction of grieving and guilt-ridden parents, really helps no one. It is also unproductive and insensitive to the family for others to blame certain individuals or institutions. It incites anger, especially in situations where emotions are very strong and very raw.
If we are to truly help, the best thing we can do is to allow the family to grieve, reflect and process in private. And, more importantly, it is best not to speculate, judge or push your own agenda to fuel an already very delicate situation.
Suicide happens practically every day, in every corner of the globe.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “every year, almost 1 million commit suicide—the global mortality rate is 16 per 100,000, one death every 40 seconds.” The world suicide rate has increased by 60 percent in the last 45 years.
The statistics from WHO suggest that “suicide is among the three leading causes of death among those aged 15-44 in some countries and the second leading cause of death in the 10-24 age group. The figures do not include suicide attempts, which are some 20 times more frequent than completed suicide.”
Even more alarming is that “while suicide rates have been traditionally highest among elderly male, rates among young people have been increasing globally to such an extent that they are now the group at highest risk in a third of countries, both developed and developing.”
In spite of the rising numbers, WHO says prevention has not been adequately addressed due to a lack of awareness of suicide as a major problem and the reluctance in many societies to discuss it openly. Only a few countries have made suicide prevention a priority.
Adds WHO: “It is clear that prevention also requires intervention from outside the health sector, as well as an innovative, comprehensive multisectoral approach involving health and nonhealth sectors, like education, labor, police, justice, religion, law, politics and the media.”
Dr. Ed Tolentino, chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Makati Medical Center and vice president of the Philippine Psychiatric Association, busts the following common myths about suicide.
1 Not all threats of suicide need to be taken seriously.
Whether the suicide is carried out or not is beside the point, Tolentino says. “The fact that it is verbalized to you means that this person is in need of help … suicide is no joking matter.”
Over 70 percent of people who threaten to kill themselves often make the attempt.
Tolentino also says that parents and teachers need to be more vigilant and on the lookout for signs of hopelessness and depression. “More often than not, and this is the sad part, the victims had been showing signs a month or two before the suicide actually happened but no one seemed to notice.”
Frequent visits to the clinic, absences or cutting classes, changes in sleeping and eating patterns, a lack of interest in things previously enjoyed, cryptic posts on social networks that allude to sadness or death and a desire to be alone are some of the signs that should alert parents, teachers and concerned classmates. These signs are often missed because of lack of training and awareness. Sometimes, too, parents are in denial that there is a problem.
Tolentino speaks about the importance of balancing high-risk and protective factors (see chart) in assessing the situation. A working knowledge of these factors can be helpful in assessing the situation. When in doubt, Tolentino encourages the person in trouble or the confidant to seek the help of a professional.
Many times parents think that because their child promises never to try suicide again, he/she will not make another attempt.
“On the contrary, a previous attempt is always a red flag [that warns you] to watch your child closely and to seek help,” Tolentino stresses. “Data show that 40 percent of those who are unsuccessful will do it again.”
3 Someone who is deeply religious or spiritual will never attempt suicide.
“Spirituality and a deep faith help but they are not guarantees. Always consider other issues… in a person’s life. Do not dismiss them just because he/she is religious,” says Tolentino.
4 One has to be mentally ill to consider suicide.
Although certain mental disorders must be considered in assessing risk factors, it is not true that you have to be mentally ill to consider suicide.
Tolentino says Edwin Schneidman has the perfect definition of suicide.
Schneidman, considered the father of suicidology, describes suicide as “a conscious act of self-induced annihilation, best understood as a multidimensional malaise in a needful individual who defines an issue for which suicide is perceived as the best solution.” Suicide is viewed as psychache, or intolerable psychological pain.
Clinical depression, more often than not, plays a huge role. Tolentino suggests that when depression is detected, it is important to probe and ask how a person is feeling about his/her life. If one is unsure, it is always best to seek the help of a professional.
5 Improved emotional health takes away the risk of suicide.
The highest rates of suicide have been registered after what seems to be an apparent improvement. Thus, this is when close monitoring is needed because energy levels have risen to a point where a person is able to plot or act on a suicidal impulse.
Tolentino encourages a more open, objective and healthier discussion of suicide in schools, offices and homes.
“When you detect some form of depression, it is important to ask a person if he/she has had suicidal thoughts. Talking about it will, in fact, provide some sense of relief… and may be one of the most important things you can do to help.”
We can each do our part to help lower suicide statistics because, although we cannot completely eradicate it, suicide is largely preventable.
(Editor’s Note: The author has a Master of Arts degree in family psychology and education and is a member of the Association for Death Education and Counseling.)