Suicide Prevention Day is observed annually on 10 September. The day calls on global commitment and action in the quest to try and help prevent suicide. Whilst historically taboo, discussions about suicide and suicide itself have become increasingly less so in recent years. There is now far greater access to information and a much deeper understanding of suicide prevailing.
However, the sad reality is that more than 700,000 people globally die due to suicide each year (World Health Organisation). Locally, a recent Daily Maverick article estimated that as many as 23 suicides occur in South Africa each day (and for every one of them there are at least 20 attempted suicides). That said, while it’s still too early to say, there is a belief that the pandemic will increase these numbers.
Suicide During A Pandemic
“Helplines are definitely experiencing a surge in calls,” says Sheila Selfe, Clinical Social Worker and member of SAASWIPP (South African Association for Social Workers in Private Practice). That said, isolation as a result of the lockdown is not the only reason behind the surge,
“There have been many stresses in this period. Loss of loved ones, loss of livelihoods, financial stress, increased anxiety and depression, all of which would have contributed to this.” Selfe says,
“However, isolation is a risk factor for suicide, and levels of isolation increased considerably during lockdown. Isolation can often make people feel very lonely and can aggravate anxiety and depression. It also makes it harder for others to recognize that someone is becoming increasingly suicidal.”
Suicide is not a pandemic side-effect
The fact is that suicide is an ongoing cause of death with many factors playing a role. Predisposing factors that can play a role include:
- mental illness
- serious physical illness
- childhood abuse
- witnessing or experiencing violence
- social isolation
- certain personality factors
“Whilst they may have had thoughts of ending their lives, against the backdrop of these situations, rising stresses may make the person feel trapped or hopeless. They may begin to feel like a burden or that they have no place in the world, or that life has lost its meaning. All of this can start to push someone close to a tipping point,” says Selfe.
Is my friend okay?
Selfe advises that you look out for a deterioration in someone’s mood.
“The person may express feelings of sadness or hopelessness. They may no longer derive pleasure from things that they enjoyed. They may become more withdrawn, or increasingly use substances to try and escape feelings that are hard to tolerate.” she says,
“I would be particularly concerned if there are high levels of agitation or poor sleep. The person may start to talk about death and dying or appear to give belongings away or be seeming to say goodbye.”
If you feel that a loved on is suicidal, Selfe recommends you reach out to a qualified professional.
How to talk about what you shouldn’t talk about
According to research, women contemplate suicide more than men, and are more likely to engage in suicide attempts. However, men are more likely to die by suicide, and it doesn’t help that their mental health is stigmatized.
“In many societies, men are expected to be strong and self-reliant and this can interfere with their ability to be open about what they are experiencing and can be an obstacle to them seeking help.” says Selfe, adding that young men may even struggle to confide in their friends because young people generally worry about how their peers see them.
Breaking the stigma
“I think it is important to promote conversations about mental health and to help people realize that many people have mental health problems at various times in their lives,” says Selfe. Thankfully, with more and more public figures like Naomi Osaka and Prince Harry being open about their mental health, then this increases public awareness.
“I think that the fact that we have all had this experience of the pandemic and lockdowns has led to people opening up more about how their emotional wellbeing was affected. The increased number of calls to helplines may also indicate that more people are feeling that it is acceptable to reach out for help.”
How can I improve my mental health?
“Exercise, social contact, meditation or relaxation techniques, controlling one’s exposure to screen time, toxic social media and negative news, maintaining routine and rhythm in one’s week, practising gratitude, and helping others, are all practices that can make a substantial difference to one’s experience of how one is in the world.”
Now while you may be in control of your mental health, not everybody else can say the same. Therefore, it’s important to also do your part and create an environment that can benefit the mental health of others,
“Work with people’s strengths. take a growth-oriented approach, create opportunities for people to contribute, recognize the dignity and importance of every person, and be mindful of the effect of your behaviour on others,” says Selfe.