The World Health Organization estimates that over 800,000 people die by suicide each year – that’s one person every 40 seconds. Up to 25 times as many again make a suicide attempt. The tragic ripple effect means that there are many, many more people who have been bereaved by suicide or have been close to someone who has tried to take his or her own life. And this is happening in spite of the fact that suicide is preventable. 'Connect, communicate, care' is the theme of the 2016 World Suicide Prevention Day. These three words are at the heart of suicide prevention.
Fostering connections with those who have lost a loved one to suicide or have been suicidal themselves is crucial to furthering suicide prevention efforts. Although every individual suicide is different, there are some common lessons to be learned. Those who have been on the brink of suicide themselves can help us understand the complex interplay of events and circumstances that led them to that point, and what saved them or helped them to choose a more life-affirming course of action. Those who have lost someone to suicide, or supported someone who was suicidal, can provide insights into how they moved forwards on their journey. The sheer numbers of people who have been affected by suicide would make this a formidable network.
Of course, these connections should be two-way. There will often be times when those who have been bereaved by suicide, and those who might be feeling suicidal themselves, need support. Keeping an eye out for them and checking that they are okay could make all the difference. Social connectedness reduces the risk of suicide, so being there for someone who has become disconnected can be a life-saving act. Connecting them with formal and informal supports may also help to prevent suicide. Individuals, organisations and communities all have a responsibility here.
Open communication is vital if we are to combat suicide. In many communities, suicide is shrouded in silence or spoken of only in hushed tones. We need to discuss suicide as we would any other public health issue if we are to dispel myths about it and reduce the stigma surrounding it. This is not to say that we shouldn’t exercise necessary caution; we don’t want to normalise suicide either. Careful, considered messages about suicide and its prevention are warranted, as is an awareness of how different groups of individuals may receive and interpret this information.
Equipping people to communicate effectively with those who might be vulnerable to suicide is an important part of any suicide prevention strategy. Broaching the subject of suicide is difficult, and these sorts of conversations are often avoided. There are some simple tips that can help, however. Most of these relate to showing compassion and empathy, and listening in a non-judgemental way. People who have come through an episode of extreme suicidal thinking often say that sensitively-managed conversations with others helped them on their course to recovery.
The media also have an important role to play in suicide prevention. Some types of reporting on suicide (e.g., prominent and/or explicit stories) have been shown to be associated with 'spikes' in suicide rates, but others (e.g., those that describe mastery of suicidal crises) have been shown to have a protective effect. Media recommendations have been developed by the International Association for Suicide Prevention and the World Health Organization to assist journalists in getting stories right.
The connections and communication will have no effect without the final ingredient - care. So real support of a specialist who can accompany the person in his personal journey towards a better life. While waiting for this type of problem from becoming a major public health problem.