By Carlena Knight
As the globe marks World Suicide Prevention Day today, Clinical Psychologist Jonelle Walsh has posited that a more proactive response is needed to address the issue.
Suicide remains one of the leading causes of death in the world, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), accounting for one in every 100 deaths.
Each year, more people die from suicide than from HIV, malaria, or breast cancer, or from war and homicide.
Suicide is also the fourth leading cause of death worldwide among young people between the ages of 15 and 29, after road traffic accidents, tuberculosis and interpersonal violence.
According to WHO’s statistics, 97,339 people died by suicide in the Americas in 2019 – and it is estimated that suicide attempts may have been 20 times that number.
Males accounted for around 77 percent of all deaths from suicide and, although progress has been made in the development of evidence-based interventions in suicide prevention, many countries continue to have increased rates.
Antigua and Barbuda for the past month has seemingly recorded two deaths by suicide, with the more recent victim being a 24-year-old male on Wednesday evening, and the former a 33-year-old female on August 30.
Because of this, Walsh suggested that it is even more imperative now for a greater proactive approach to be taken toward suicide prevention.
“It means that we have to be proactive rather than reactive. Keep talking about it. Keep talking about mental health. Keep talking about mental health disorders because we know things like depression and post traumatic stress and any sort of stressors can lead to suicide,” she said.
“So, it isn’t one specific thing; it means we have to keep pushing, we have to keep using social media, mainstream media, whatever it is, to get that message across to the public.
“This is why we pretty much formed the Mental Health Talk Antigua as well, so that we keep pushing that information so that people are bombarded and they know that this information is available and this is how you can get help,” Walsh said.
Her sentiments were echoed by the Mental Health Coordinator in the Ministry of Health, Monifa St John.
St John admits that there is a challenge to get the message across to a greater number of persons as the population is more receptive when a tragedy happens. She mentioned that the stigma surrounding suicides is still prevalent, not only in the country but regionally as well.
“There is a negative stigma when it comes to suicide and even in some of the countries in the world it is actually criminalised.
“Right here in the Caribbean, in the Bahamas and in Guyana, [the stigma] is actually a criminal offence. Judging from that aspect, you have such a negative connotation when it comes to ‘okay, that person is going to commit suicide, that person suffers with mental health issues’ and because of that we are not taking it as seriously as we actually should.
“Like what Janelle said, we really need to look at ourselves and see how we are acting towards mental illness as well as suicide,” St John added.
This year’s World Suicide Prevention Day – marked annually on September 10 – is being held under the theme ‘Creating Hope through Action’.
The link between suicide and mental health has long been touted by medical experts.
Certain mental health conditions including bipolar disorders, personality disorders, and depression increase the likelihood of suicide attempts.
Other factors attributing to suicide risk are: alcohol abuse, drug abuse, terminal illnesses, the break- up of relationships, and financial hardships.
But according to Walsh, the ongoing pandemic is one of the biggest stress factors persons are dealing with at this time as it impacts so many facets of a person’s life.
According to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), studies have shown that the pandemic has amplified risk factors associated with suicide, such as job or economic loss, trauma or abuse, mental health disorders, and barriers to accessing health care.
Because of this, Walsh noted that a greater focus is needed to address some of these issues by implementing social programmes.
“Because Covid-19 has seen people losing their jobs, roles shifting in families, it’s almost automatic to start to begin to think that it will definitely impact our mental health and so we have to pay particular attention to how we are coping, how are we going to help persons in our economy because we have to work now on building our economy so that persons have some sort of financial stability, some sort of housing so that persons can really cope.
“It means that we are going to have to have more social programmes to teach persons how to cope. I know we are going back to remote learning so can we implement some sort of programme in the schools to help the children to cope on that level?” she asked.
“It would be really important to teach persons how best to cope with their stressor in this given time.”
Most suicides are preceded by verbal or behavioural warning signs such as talking about wanting to die, feeling great guilt or shame, or feeling like a burden on others.
Other signs are feeling empty, hopeless, trapped, or with no reason to live; feeling extremely sad, anxious, agitated, or full of anger; or with unbearable pain, whether emotional or physical.
Behavioural changes such as making a plan or researching ways to die; staying away from friends, saying goodbye, giving away important items or making a will; doing very risky things like driving at extreme speed; showing extreme mood swings; eating or sleeping too much or too little; and using drugs or alcohol more often can also be warning signs of suicide.
Key proven suicide prevention measures include limiting access to means of suicide (such as pesticides and firearms), early identification, assessment, management and follow-up of people affected by suicidal thoughts and behaviours, fostering adolescent social-emotional skills, and educating the media in responsible reporting on suicide.
The Ministry of Health, in the hopes of bringing awareness to the matter, will be hosting a national candlelight vigil tonight at 8pm virtually.
Persons are encouraged to take a picture or video of their candle and post it to social media using the hashtags #worldsuicidepreventionday, #WSPD and #bethelight.