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Preventing suicide: How can family, friends, governments help?

Psychologists say measures by governments and the social circles of individuals with suicidal tendencies can help change their lives

September 10, 2021 at 1:49 pm

Depression [Pixnio]

While lives are lost every day due to feelings of helplessness in the face of mental and physical pain, depression, abuse/mistreatment, financial woes, as well as alcohol or drug abuse, there are ways the social circles of people in distress as well as governments can help prevent suicide, specialists say.

Citing World Health Organisation (WHO) data, Turkish psychologist Secim Buyukcatalbas says that 800,000 people on average end their lives every year, that’s about one suicide every 40 seconds, with one out of every 25 suicide attempts resulting in death.

The WHO’s 2003 declaration of 10 September as World Suicide Prevention Day was a significant step to raise awareness of suicide, she says, adding that in the years since, comprehensive training, brochures and short films have bolstered efforts.

Suicidal thoughts

Loneliness, which is both a risk and a triggering factor for suicide, can be accompanied by mental disorders, substance abuse, and to a degree, genetic factors, says Hatice Demirbas, the head of the Psychology Department of Haci Bayram Veli University in the Turkish capital Ankara.

Problem-solving skills are passed down through families and so suicidal tendencies have a gene-based factor, this does not mean people with such genes definitely have a tendency towards suicide, or that those who lack them do not, she says.

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Demirbas underlines that as a complex process, suicide does not result from just one reason, but that a combination of various risk factors, triggers, and living conditions play a role in the process.

Individuals have different levels of mental pain thresholds, coping mechanisms, and different personalities, including susceptibility to loneliness, helplessness and happiness.

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The most common reasons that entail a tendency for suicide include the loss of a loved one, she explains, whether through death, the end of a relationship, imprisonment, or the like.

Noting that the 19-25 age group sees the highest suicide rate, Demirbas highlights that suicide attempts by men result in more deaths.

Mental disorders, she adds, neuro-biological factors, traumas, access to firearms, serious medical diseases, alcohol and substance use, and personality disorders can all play a role in the tendency to suicidal thoughts.

But she adds that these risk factors vary greatly depend on individual differences such as age, socioeconomic status and level of education.

The signs

Elif Suna Ozbay, a clinical psychologist based in Ankara, says people with suicidal tendencies may mention “being a burden” on other people, or “feeling stuck”. They might feel unbearable pain, or that they have no reason to live.

“You may notice use of alcohol or substances, or an increase in their use. They may have no interest in the activities they did before. They can isolate themselves from their family and friends. Hypersomnia or insomnia, differences in their appetites may also be an indication,” she says.

Ozbay adds that an increase in depression, anger, humiliation, or anxiety can often be observed as well.

For those around someone suffering in such a way, Ozbay explains, the first thing to do is to suggest getting professional help, including suicide hotlines.

On a personal level, the most important thing is to listen to the person carefully. “You need to make them feel understood. Listening without judgment and reminding them that their situation can be fixed is a favourable approach,” she explains.

“We should not judge what they are experiencing, and we definitely should not underestimate. Saying: ‘I’ve gone through that too,’ ‘It is not a big deal,’ ‘It will pass,’ are not suggested. Likewise, we should not tell them suicide is a sin, ignore their problems, or wait without doing anything,” she continues. “We need to remind them that help is always accessible.”

Noting that usually encouragement to get professional help is usually turned down, Buyukcatalbas recommends not allowing them to be alone.

“It is unlikely you can convince a person in the depths of desperation to take part in social life. Sitting near them even without talking will have a healing power instead of forcing them to attend an event,” she suggests.

Buyukcatalbas further underlines the importance of keeping firearms and chemical substances away from people with suicidal tendencies. “However,” she says, “these precautions should not be done in an obtrusive manner. Abruptly installing window bars may cause further despair, making them feel as if you’ve given up on them.”

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She points to the importance of unconditional love and acceptance regardless of the situation. “The most significant factor that relieves them of suicidal thoughts is the feeling of acceptance. Their lives will not be intolerable once they realise they are cared for by at least one person.”

Recommending participation in group therapy, she says that meeting other people who share the same pain as them, and feeling their support, can help heal a person with a tendency to suicide.

“We are social beings, and interaction is of vital importance for us. There definitely are people around us who can help us, find a solution for problems in our lives. We shouldn’t be afraid to talk, to ask for help,” Demirbas explains.

She adds that governments can help bring down suicide rates, by requiring lessons on improving problem-solving skills starting in elementary school.

Ozbay argues that children should be taught in school that having mental disorders is as normal and as common as other illnesses, stressing that access to mental health professionals should be made easier and more affordable, as it is costly and not covered by health insurance in many countries.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.