Suicide is on the rise worldwide. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), it’s the second leading cause of death among 15-29-year-olds and nearly 800,000 people die due to suicide every year – that’s one suicide every 40 seconds. There are also around 20 times as many failed attempts.
These worrying statistics make World Suicide Prevention Day on 10 September more important than ever.
Suicide risk factors
Men are at significantly higher risk than women and suicide is the leading cause of death among men under 50. Statistics from The British Psychological Society show that men aged 20-29 and 40-49 are most at risk.
The Movember Foundation, which works to raise awareness of men’s health issues, has concluded that men’s reluctance to openly discuss their health and feelings or take action when they’re unwell, coupled with the stigmas still surrounding mental health, are two of the chief reasons why men’s life expectancy remains significantly lower than those of women. The damaging stereotype of the physically and mentally tough ‘real man’ is to blame for much of men’s reluctance to express their feelings and seek help, as they fear being labelled weak.
The biggest risk factor for suicide is a previous suicide attempt, but what drives people to attempt it?
The WHO points out that while there are clear links between suicide and mental disorders (including alcohol use disorders), many suicides happen impulsively in moments of crisis. A trauma, relationship break-up, financial problems or chronic pain and illness can cause high levels of stress that may suddenly overwhelm us and seem too much to cope with.
Experiencing conflict, disaster, violence, abuse, or loss and a sense of isolation are also strongly associated with suicidal behaviour and suicide rates are also high amongst groups who experience discrimination, such as refugees, migrants, prisoners and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people.
So, what can we do to prevent suicide on a personal level and as a society?
Tackle discrimination and damaging stereotypes
The boy who is brought up to believe he mustn’t cry or admit he’s stressed; the girl who hides her true sexual orientation because she’s grown up hearing gay people ridiculed; the migrant shunned by work colleagues – they’re all at higher risk of isolation and depression, and so at higher risk of suicide. It can be tough to tackle this kind of discrimination among family, friends and colleagues, but it’s important we do so.
Tackle the stigmas surrounding mental health
We can do this by challenging negative attitudes and ensuring that in our words and actions, we treat mental illness as just as valid and important as physical illness, acknowledging how closely they are related.
Maggie Warrell, founder of Global Courage, recently wrote for Forbes magazine about losing her brother to suicide and the role we must all play in tackling it. ‘If people felt as comfortable talking about their PTSD, bipolar or anxiety as they did talking about their eczema or tennis elbow, it would markedly reduce the suffering of those with mental illness and the ability of those around them to support them.’
Encourage men to express their feelings
It’s important to encourage men (and women) to seek help with mental health issues and be more aware of the dangers of alcohol and its misuse. Depression and alcohol-related disorders need to be identified and treated as early as possible. ‘The tragedy of suicide is preventable,’ states The British Psychological Society. ‘Early identification and effective action can get people the care they need.’
Pay closer attention to those around us
Many suicide victims were reportedly ‘fine’ just days or even hours before ending their lives, so we should look out for warning signs. If we fear someone we know may be contemplating suicide, we need to get help on their behalf – and take the horribly practical but essential measure of removing, as much as possible, any potential means for suicide, be that a stockpile of pills or a means to fatally injure themselves.
Samaritans: Call 116 123, open 24/7 every day. samaritans.org
Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) – for men. 0800 58 58 58 open 5pm – midnight every day. thecalmzone.net
Matt Haig, Reasons to Stay Alive, Canongate Books. Many people who have suffered depression and/or contemplated suicide credit this book for helping them through crises.
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