Talking about suicide

On Sunday last, the world observed Suicide Prevention Day; the global theme was ‘Take a Minute, Change a Life,’ in a push to reduce the annual worldwide death rate, estimated at some 800,000 by the World Health Organisation, based on statistics gathered from around the world.

In many countries, preventing suicide has long become a public health priority. So much so that rather than have just a one-day observance, a week is set aside and in some places, including New Zealand, Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom, the entire month is being used to bring awareness to this troubling mental health issue, leading right up to World Mental Health Awareness Day on October 10.

There is cognisance that the global theme should not be taken literally as it takes way much longer than a minute to turn someone away from suicidal thoughts and in so doing change that person’s life. Depression is one of the precursors of suicide and in many cases, it can take years of therapy or in some instances medication to treat this common mental health illness. Other causes include crisis, stress and substance abuse, and in children and young people, bullying and post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from violent abuse. Research also suggests that contagion, which occurs when persons, mostly children and teenagers, learn of or observe their peers committing suicide, leads to increases in attempts and actual deaths.

It is important though, to differentiate between talking suicide, which can encompass contagion, and talking about suicide which can lead to turning someone away from thoughts of it. How does one do this? Well this is where the professionals come in. It is not enough to simply say that persons should talk to relatives and friends who might be contemplating suicide; it is important that they know what to say. In some countries, mental health aid is taught to individuals and families just as first aid is; it addresses how to speak to people with mental health problems and is very necessary.

Of course, there are hotlines, helplines, counsellors and doctors that persons in trouble can call or approach. However, it is well known that in some cases persons who are determined to kill themselves do so without reaching out for professional assistance. In other instances, relatives and friends might not notice symptoms that something is wrong and if they do, the person could very well deny it.

One way of ensuring that persons in crisis have access to the services they need is to provide it on the spot. If for instance someone has endured a violent traumatic episode, it is not enough to give that person a referral to counselling services which they have to call and make an appointment. Such services should be readily available on site, professional assessments should be made and follow-ups done, by telephone, text message or in person if necessary, if the patient does not return at the appointed time.

This is what one might expect to occur in places where addressing mental health and suicide prevention are important. Unfortunately, this does not currently take place in Guyana. There have been several instances where families in crisis were not offered any counselling. A recent case in point is the family of Ron Pilgrim, whose toddler daughter was recently murdered, allegedly by a relative. In an interview with this newspaper, which was published on Sunday last, Mr Pilgrim related the efforts he has been making to cope since the tragedy.

Mr Pilgrim works two jobs, long hours, which barely give him enough time to sleep. He related during the interview that his two older sons have been very affected by their sister’s death and are unwilling and perhaps unable to sleep in the small shack they call home. As a result, he has been forced to leave them at his former girlfriend’s home on the nights he works. He said he was unsure how much longer that would continue. It was clear that up to the time of the interview, the Pilgrims had had no contact with counsellors or social/welfare services.

In another recent case, nursery school teacher Cindy Dawson was found unconscious in her Cummings Lodge home near the dead body of her husband. She was taken to hospital and was later released into the care of relatives. She was living with her brother at Charity, Essequibo Coast when she walked outside and quietly hanged herself.

Mrs Dawson was obviously very affected by her husband’s death. It is entirely possible that her being discovered unconscious with his body could have been as a result of an attempt to end her life. However, that was never established. What was also not known was whether Mrs Dawson had access to mental health services, given her traumatic event, which was well known and publicised. If she did, was she referred to similar services in Essequibo? All signs point to this not being the case.

Minister in the Ministry of Public Health Dr Karen Cummings at Guyana’s observance, had said that suicide is preventable and it is, but only when efforts are made to prevent it. This was clearly not the case with Mrs Dawson. There have been several other similar instances that have been raised in this column before. It is not enough to just have a mental health plan, it must work. It was unlikely that someone in Mrs Dawson’s state of mind would have called a hotline or used any other resource; she did not even reach out to her own relatives. But her suicide, like all others, was one that could have been prevented.

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