Observed annually on 10 September since 2003, ‘Suicide Prevention Day’ calls on global commitment and actions in the quest to try and help prevent suicides. Whilst historically taboo, discussions around suicide and suicide itself have become increasingly less so in recent years, with far greater access to information and a much deeper understanding about suicide prevailing.  

However, the sad reality is that more than 700,000 people globally die due to suicide each year (World Health Organisation). Locally, a recent Daily Maverick article estimated that as many as 23 suicides occur in South Africa each day (and for every one of them there are at least 20 attempted suicides). In the face of the ongoing Covid19 pandemic, whilst too early for any firm statistics to be available, it is strongly believed that the pandemic will show an increase in these numbers. 

“Help lines are definitely experiencing a surge in calls,” says Sheila Selfe, Clinical Social Worker and member of SAASWIPP (South African Association for Social Workers in Private Practice). “Some of the risk factors for this include isolation, higher levels of depression, loss of livelihoods, financial worries and the loss of loved ones (often under very difficult circumstances). During the pandemic, people with existing mental health conditions have been at increased risk with their coping mechanisms, sometimes being overwhelmed.”

However, suicide is definitely not only linked to times of world crisis. It is an ongoing cause of death with many factors playing a role. When one looks deeper into the situation of someone who has ended their life by suicide, one often finds that there is not only one cause. Predisposing factors such as mental illness, serious physical illness, the experience of abuse in their childhood or, more recently, witnessing or experiencing violence, social isolation or certain personality factors all play a role. “Whilst they may have had thoughts of ending their lives, against the backdrop of these situations, rising stresses may make the person feel trapped or hopeless. They may begin to feel like a burden or that they have no place in the world, or life has lost its meaning, all of which can start to push someone close to a tipping point,” says Selfe. 

Selfe adds that it is not uncommon for people, at times, to experience feelings of wishing they could die. However, she adds that only a relatively small portion of these then go on to think seriously about it and begin to formulate a plan, with even fewer then attempting to implement it. However, even suicidal thoughts should be taken seriously as they may indicate a higher level of risk. 

“It is important to engage with a person whom you may regard as a suicide risk,” stresses Selfe. “Some indicators could include changes in a loved one’s behaviour such as withdrawal from others, discussing death, giving away their possessions (seemingly saying goodbye), agitation or even changes in sleeping patterns. Sometimes, someone who has decided to end their life could also appear happier and calmer which could be interpreted as them feeling better. Sadly, suicide is very complex with risk factors fluctuating, and not all suicides preventable.”

With suicide affecting all age groups and genders, studies do appear to indicate that whilst women contemplate suicide more than men, and are more likely to engage in suicide attempts, men are more likely to die by suicide. This is due to either the choice of more lethal methods or acting with more intent to end their lives.

“Young men, in particular, may find it harder to speak about their problems and feelings, admit to vulnerability or seek help. They may have fewer close friends to confide in and may use substances such as alcohol to deal with their feelings. In many instances of suicide, the person has used alcohol beforehand which has acted as a disinhibitor and enabled them to carry it out,” continues Selfe.  

However, this does not mean that women are less at risk. Suicide attempts can escalate as the person becomes increasingly desensitized to the idea of death and many people who die by suicide (both men and women) have made suicide attempts in the past. 

Selfe strongly recommends the assistance of qualified professionals to assist one’s loved one who may be considered a suicide risk.  “There are very good helplines in a crisis (SADAG), but regular counselling is of great importance. It offers continuity of care that provides for a supportive relationship capable of holding the person and their changing moods and emotional states and to help them manage their feelings so that it does not escalate into self-harm.” Contact a social worker, psychologist, family doctor or health care facility. There are also NPOs such as Cape Mental Health who will offer support and advice to families free of charge.

Further, family members of loved ones of someone with high suicidality or who have lost a family member or loved one to suicide, also require help themselves. “This is not something that anyone should carry on their own. And, as important as it is to try and create a loving climate wherein you can engage with your family member and/ or loved one whom you may consider a suicide risk, so too is it important to receive whatever assistance you need as you navigate an emotionally distressing time.” Find a counsellor or approach your doctor or healthcare facility who will be able to refer you for emotional support.


SAASWIPP: https://www.saaswipp.co.za/social-worker-search

SADAG: Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0800 567 567 

Cape Mental Health: (021) 447 9040

Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

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