Live and Let Live

What is suicide? It amounts to taking one’s own life by unnatural means. Every year, suicide is among the top 20 leading causes of death globally for people of all ages. It is responsible for over 800,000 deaths, which equates to one suicide every 40 seconds. Around 25 more make a suicide attempt during that time, without success. When you factor in the loss felt by family, this amounts to 108 million people per year who are impacted by suicidal behaviour. Suicide is apparently so widespread that international TV networks even have a new term – death by suicide.

Sri Lanka’s suicide deaths stood at an all-time high in 1995, according to police records, with a rate of 57 per 100,000 people. The suicide rate has fallen drastically since then and now stands about 14 or 15 persons for every 100,000. In Sri Lanka, which once topped world rankings for suicide, not a day goes by without coming across a TV news report on a suicide somewhere in the island. It is mostly young people who commit suicide, but suicides are reported across all age groups and from both sexes.

Suicide has reached epidemic proportions around the world that the UN has designated September 10 (today) as World Suicide Prevention Day, with the World Health Organisation as the designated lead agency for various anti-suicide initiatives and programmes around the world. This year, the theme is “40 Seconds of Action” to highlight the fact that someone, somewhere takes their own life every 40 seconds. Moreover, last year’s theme of “Working Together to Prevent Suicide” will also continue this year and in 2020.

According to expert definitions, suicide is the result of a convergence of genetic, psychological, social and cultural and other risk factors, sometimes combined with experiences of trauma and loss. Many suicides happen impulsively in moments of crisis with a breakdown in the ability to deal with life stresses, such as financial problems, relationship break-up or chronic pain and illness. Experiencing conflict, disaster, violence, abuse, or loss and a sense of isolation are also strongly associated with suicidal behaviour.

The saddest fact about suicide is that it is preventable if help is sought either by the suicidal person or those close to him or her. However, this is not as easy as it sounds, as some people on the verge of suicide may not exhibit any unusual symptoms or behaviour.

Media’s responsibility

The media has a major role to play in preventing suicides. We have seen how some newspaper reports and TV news bulletins glorify suicide, giving step-by-step details on how the suicide was committed. This is highly unethical and totally unnecessary. Pictures of the bodies of people who commit suicide are sometimes published or shown on television, which is also unethical. The publication of any details or pictures must necessarily be measured against the impact that it would cause among the general population. In fact, some countries such as Norway have long restricted the mention of “suicide” in media coverage of such deaths and media outlets rarely include details of how these deaths occurred.

Unfortunately in Sri Lanka, there are some songs and teledramas that seem to glorify suicide and show it as a solution for all life’s ills. Love that ends in heartbreak is often a target for suicide in these songs and teledramas. Young people may be inspired to follow a similar path by watching these programmes.

Furthermore, suicides by high-profile persons may inspire copycat suicides. Several well-known actors have committed suicide in Sri Lanka while the death by suicide of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain and dress designer Kate Spade have garnered a lot of attention worldwide. Suicide may seem to be a heroic act for some in this background. The media can highlight what led to these deaths and show others the futility of ending one’s life to get away with life’s problems and challenges.

It has been noted that education per se is not a bar to suicide. Several suicides that we came across in the news in recent times were of university graduates and others similarly qualified. Unfortunately, the education received in school or university in Sri Lanka does not really focus much on emotional well-being, interpersonal skills, problem solving skills etc. as much as it focuses on academics, achievements and success. These elements must be inculcated in children from the early grades. Faced with a major crisis in life, many people have no coping mechanism and veer towards suicide. The lack of “emotional literacy” is a huge stumbling block.

Experts have called for equipping young people with the correct skills to cope with failure, to deal with rejection by peers, parents or lovers and to manage interpersonal relationships. People going through psychological distress often feel completely alone. Mental health advocates urge people to speak to someone near and dear and if that is not possible, to pick up the phone and ask for help from professional counsellors.

Professional counsellors

However, in the more remote areas telephone or face-to-face access to professional counsellors may be limited. Some have suggested that all doctors should be trained in this sphere, so that anyone can walk into a rural hospital and seek help if having suicidal tendencies.

Yes, a kind word may sometimes be the only answer to a suicidal thought. After all, suicide is not a solution for any of life’s problems and ideally should not be seen as one. As the saying goes, death does not solve any problems, only living does.

If you or anyone you know exhibit the following symptoms, try to seek professional help: Feeling sad or having a depressed mood; Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed; Changes in appetite — weight loss or gain unrelated to dieting; Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much; Loss of energy or increased fatigue; Increase in purposeless physical activity (e.g., hand-wringing or pacing) or slowed movements and speech; Feeling worthless or guilty; Difficulty thinking, concentrating or making decisions; Thoughts of death or suicide. Note that depression per se can be medically treated.

There are also more clear warning signs of suicide that include: Often talking or writing about death, dying, or suicide; Making comments about being hopeless, helpless or worthless; Expressions of having no reason for living; no sense of purpose in life; saying things like “It would be better if I wasn’t here” or “I want out”; Increased alcohol and/or drug misuse; Withdrawal from friends, family and community; Reckless behaviour or more risky activities, seemingly without thinking; Dramatic mood changes and talking about feeling trapped or being a burden to others.

According to the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), “suicidal experiences are about overwhelming emotional pain where one feels trapped, alone and hopeless. It is not their life that they wish to extinguish; it is this pain they want to kill”. In most cases, if one helps to extinguish that pain or the root cause of that pain, the suicidal tendencies go away. One expert has commented that suicidal thoughts are a sign that perhaps it is not your life that needs to end, but the way that you are living your life that needs to end.

But the best way out of any such thoughts is to make friends with yourself and be nicer to yourself. Others may not be able to help you if you do not want or like to help yourself. Low self esteem can sometimes lead to suicidal thoughts. So learn to think positively about yourself at all times and engage in an activity that makes you happy, no matter what situation you are in. There is no need to despair – remember, there are always people having worse problems than you but taking life head on.

But at the end of the day, if you so desire, help is available, no matter the extent of helplessness and despair. One of the most visible help-lines in Sri Lanka is Sumithrayo.

The organisation was founded over 40 years ago and offers free over the phone, face-to-face, and online counselling. Helpline volunteers remain anonymous, which they say lowers the mental barrier to calling for help, and protects client confidentiality. Sumithrayo’s services are open to the public 365 days of the year from 9.00 am to 8.00 pm, either over the phone or face-to-face by visiting their organisation at No.60B, Horton Place, Colombo 07. Sumithrayo can be reached at 011-269 6666 or help can also be sought via the CCC Line (1333). 



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