World Suicide Prevention day: 7 key areas we need to understand

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day – an annual awareness raising event organised by International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP) and the World Health Organisation (WHO). In this blog I’ll be exploring 7 areas in which greater understanding could help save thousands of lives every year.

1. Suicide affects many people

The World Health Organisation estimates that over 800,000 people die by suicide every year, and around 25 times as many make a suicide attempt. In the UK, there were 6,122 suicides of people aged 10 and over in 2014.

Each of these deaths has a ripple effect – on family, friends, professionals and the community in general.

2. Certain groups of people are at a higher risk of suicide

Three out of four deaths by suicide are by men, particularly in midlife. A number of charities have called for male suicide to be treated as a national public health issue, on a par with smoking, obesity and pollution.

Another ‘at risk’ group are young people – suicide is the leading cause of death in people aged 15-29 years. Suicide prevention charity Papyrus are calling for a national conversation around youth suicide through their Talk Through the Taboo campaign.

Mental health can also play a role in the risk of suicide, as people diagnosed with a mental health problem are more likely to die by suicide than those without.

Over half of people who die by suicide have a history of self-harm, making self-harm the strongest predictor of suicide. However, many more people self-harm than die by suicide, and it’s important to note that many people who self-harm do not want to end their lives.

3. There is no single reason why someone may take their own life

Suicide is best understood by looking at each individual, their life and circumstances.

As mentioned, there are a risk factors that make people particularly vulnerable to suicide including having a mental health problem or a history of self-harm. There are a wide range of social and psychological factors that may influence an individual’s decision to take their own lives including unemployment and alcohol or other substance misuse.

4. Suicide is preventable

It is important to remember that suicide and self-harm are largely preventable. We know there are risk factors at individual, group and population level that could be addressed more effectively. This can include better services for those who self-harm, experience mental health problems or have issues around addiction and substance misuse. It also includes restricting access to the means of suicide, which can be as simple as putting barriers on bridges.

Building resilience and promoting better well-being in individuals and our communities could make a major impact.

We must also encourage and promote responsible reporting of suicide. The Samaritans do a lot of work in this area and have developed excellent guidelines to help the media.

This means no single organisation can take sole responsibility for suicide prevention. It’s everybody’s business – from healthcare professionals, policy makers and local government to social services, the police, the general public and many more.

5. Thinking about suicide is common

Many people have thoughts of suicide at some point in their lives, usually this will pass. It’s important that you don’t suffer in silence – speak to a close friend or family member, or contact one of the helplines listed at the end of this page.

Suicidal thoughts may also be a symptom of a mental health problem, such as depression. In this case it is important to speak to your GP so you can discuss the best course of treatment.

6. Support those bereaved by suicide

Individuals bereaved by suicide often feel isolated at a time when they are grieving and suffering mental anguish. Even those with strong support networks can still feel alone, unable to share their true feelings because of the stigma around suicide and for fear of their impact on others, particularly when they are also in a caring role for others who are bereaved.

This can lead to those bereaved by suicide having an increased risk of suicide, thoughts of suicide, psychiatric admission and depression. Suicide prevention should include support for those bereaved by suicide.

7. It’s important to talk and tackle stigma

A lot of people don’t like to talk about suicide. There is still a lot of stigma about it in society. This can stop people who are feeling suicidal talking to anybody about how they feel, make families feel ashamed and isolated when someone they love takes their own life and affect how people respond to those who are in distress.

People who kill themselves have often told someone they do not feel like life is worth living. It’s ok to ask someone directly about suicide. It allows them to talk about how they feel. Once they start doing that they are more likely to think about other options. Talking openly about suicide can save lives.

If you’re not sure how to start the conversation, which admittedly can feel daunting, read this fantastic article by Papyrus which gives great advice. One of the the main takeaways from the post is this:

“It is also unlikely that a person will be angry or offended, but relieved you have invited them to talk about how they are feeling. Many young people feel they are a burden or undeserving of support or will not be taken seriously. By asking the question, you are showing that you are ready to listen and will help them to access support. Not asking is too great a risk to take.”

Where to get help

If you are feeling suicidal it is important to talk to somebody. You can phone The Samaritans on 116 123 24 hours a day, or text the Papyrus HOPEline on 07786 209697. Both organisations can also offer help and advice to those worried about a friend or family member.

Other helpful organisations

Professor Ann John

Professor Ann John is a clinical academic at Swansea University. Ann’s research focusing on suicide, self harm and depression with a particular focus on routinely collected data.

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