THE World Health Organisation (WHO) made ‘Suicide Prevention’ the theme for this year’s World Mental Health Day on Oct 10 against the backdrop of an alarming global increase in death by suicide.
Close to 800,000 people die by suicide every year, based on WHO findings. And for every suicide, there are more than 20 attempted suicides.
Why such a high occurrence of people taking their own lives? Can it be prevented?
The issue has not been adequately addressed due to a lack of awareness that suicide is a major public health problem, opined Sibu Resident Charles Siaw.
Sharing his views, he said society still frowned upon the open discussion on suicide and for many cultures, it’s taboo.
He noted that suicide had become such a serious worldwide problem that ‘Suicide Prevention’ was picked as the theme for World Mental Health Day 2019.
“So far, only a few countries have made suicide prevention a priority and only 38 countries have a national suicide prevention strategy in place.”
According to him, suicides do not occur only in high-income countries but is a global phenomenon.
In 2016, over 70 per cent of suicides occurred in low- and middle-income countries. That same year, suicides were the second global leading cause of death among the 15-to-29 age group.
Suicide and attempted suicide have rippling effects on families, friends, colleagues, communities, and societies.
The stigma surrounding mental disorder and suicide means those thinking of taking their own life are not seeking help or getting the help they need.
Siaw stressed that raising community awareness and removing the taboo are important in preventing suicide.
“Today, we can educate ourselves on mental illnesses and ways to help the patients. We can explore and recognise the gaps — things we don’t understand and have yet to learn.
“We can start thinking about being more welcoming and understanding of a friend, a neighbour, or a colleague who is going through a tough time and needs someone to turn to. It’s important to understand mental health issues affect people from all walks of life — men and women of all ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds.”
He said promoting mental health and well-being required an understanding of cultural diversity, respect for differences, and a willingness to learn and accept the different ways of viewing the world.
“Many people still have a fundamental misunderstanding of mental illnesses. I think the biggest and most important challenge lies in overcoming this misunderstanding. We need to reach a point where the public understands the nature of mental illnesses.”
He commended the Sibu Mental Health Association (SMHA) for organising programmes such as mental health talks, quizzes, and children’s colouring contests for the public.
Sibu Division health officer Dr Teh Joh Hun said awareness of important mental health issues could be raised through dialogue.
“Every 40 seconds a life is lost to suicide. It’s one of the main causes of death among teenagers and young adults between 15 and 29 years old,” he noted.
Dr Teh said suicides are preventable, adding, “According to WHO, everyone can do something in 40 seconds to prevent suicide. For example, talk to your friends about suicide or if you are a manager, spend 40 seconds talking to your employees about suicide.”
He pointed out that there were warning signs such as people threatening to hurt or kill themselves or actively looking for ways to kill themselves by stockpiling pills, buying equipment that could be used to suffocate themselves, or talking or writing about death, dying, or suicide.
He said suicides were even more prevalent now due to the nature of present-day society.
“More and more people are now interacting only by cell phones, resulting in less and less human-to-human communication and contact. The increasing isolation has led to the worsening of mental health among teens and young adults.
“Parents should make an effort to talk to their children. Take time and be there for them. Even 40 seconds a day may be enough. My advice is to reach out to anyone — family, friends and co-workers — and talk to them, not via WeChat or WhatsApp but over coffee or tea.
“Make a connection … not an Internet or WiFi connection but a heart-to-heart connection. You may save a life. Take 40 seconds or longer, make a connection,” Dr Teh advised.
Good mental health
SMHA will continue to create public awareness of the importance of good mental health.
Its president Kapitan So Teck Kee said it is only with good mental health that a person could lead a meaningful life.
“Having good mental health augurs well for the development of family, society and nation. Families should encourage members suspected of having mental problems to interact and communicate rather than confining them at home as this will worsen their situation. They should be brought out to merge into society to help them destress and alleviate their mental state.”
So, who is the outgoing chairman of the Board of Visitors of the Psychiatric Ward in Sibu Hospital, hoped NGOs would step forward to help the less fortunate and create a caring society.
Life coach Jason Zeck Lee noted that mental illnesses were on the rise with statistics showing 18.3 per cent of the 12-to-17 age group nationally suffer from depression.
“This number is scary in that out of every five teenagers, one is depressed. It’s too high. We need to create greater awareness. Patients should also be taught to identify which type of depression they are facing. I believe all patients are different — some can’t sleep, some can’t eat, some hear voices, and some want to commit suicide.”
Lee said a lot of people did not know how to deal with a loved one suffering from depression.
“If they notice a family member getting depressed, it’s imperative to pull him or her back before they slip deeper into depression.”
On countering depression, he said the first step is to go to the clinic or hospital to be diagnosed.
“Many people go online and fill up a questionnaire. There are 20 questions and by the time they answer all of them, they already classify themselves as depression patients — which is not right. They need to go to the clinic or hospital for a thorough check-up. Consulting a psychiatrist is normal nowadays.
“Everybody should be aware it’s all right to get help from those who can help them professionally. Counselling can be part of the healing process. We have many associations or societies — religious or non-religious — that can help. But the thing is that a lot of people with depression are reluctant to speak up.”
Lee urged families to listen to what their children wanted to say — like the problems they were facing in school. He said a good start would be to have someone to talk to and the best place for this is the home.
He also encouraged families to have dinner together and share their daily happenings.
“Do this every day,” he advised.
Mental health definition
Sibu Hospital Head of Psychiatry Department Dr Wong Sing Teck said mental health is defined as a state of well-being where every individual realises his or her potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, works productively, and fruitfully makes a contribution to her or his community.
A mentally healthy person, he added, could maintain “a good function” biologically, psychologically, socially, and spiritually.
“There’re different mental disorders with different manifestations, generally characterised by a combination of abnormal thoughts, perceptions, emotions, behaviours, and relationships with others.
“Among the mental disorders are depression, bipolar affective disorder, schizophrenia, psychoses, dementia, intellectual disabilities, and developmental disorders, including autism.
“Determinants of mental health and mental disorders include not only individual attributes such as the ability to manage one’s thoughts, emotions, behaviours and interactions with others, but also social, cultural, economic, political, and environmental factors such as national policies, social protection, standards of living, working conditions, and community support.
“Stress, genetics, nutrition, perinatal infections, substance abuse, and exposure to environmental hazards are also contributing factors to mental disorders,” he explained.
On treatment, Dr Wong said various medications could be used — for example, antipsychotics for schizophrenia, anti-depressants for depression, mood stabilisers for bipolar disorder, and anxiolytics for anxiety disorders.
Psychotherapy, he added, is an alternative treatment or concurrent treatment option for depression and anxiety disorders.
“Mentally ill patients also require rehabilitation with the help of an occupational therapist. Most importantly, people with mental disorder should get help and treatment as soon as possible to increase the chance of recovery.”
Dr Wong said help is available at any government community clinics or hospitals, private clinics, or medical centres with psychiatric services.
Alternatively contact the Befrienders Suicide Helpline (03-79568145), Befrienders Kuching Suicide Helpline (082-242800 — 6.30pm to 9.30pm); or Mental Health Association of Sarawak and Sibu Wellness Centre (084-333060).