Increase sustainable suicide prevention methods

Dr Gomez

PREVENTION is better than cure but interventions have to be carried out immediately if we want to see a drop in the number of youth attempting to take their own lives.

HELP University psychologist & Fulbrighter Dr Brendan J. Gomez says that the number of youths facing mental health issues have doubled since the start of the decade.

The numbers are troubling with one in 10 individuals (with mental health issues) in 2011 becoming one in five in 2016, he adds.

“By 2020, mental illness is expected to be the second biggest health problem affecting Malaysians after heart disease.”

Today, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has listed suicide as the second leading cause of death of young people (15 to 29 years old) worldwide, after road accidents.

This fact has not escaped our local government with Health director-general Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah sharing it on his Facebook page.

On Thursday, Deputy Prime Minister Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail said in a statement that depression was the main mental disability among Malaysians.

In the Bernama report, Dr Wan Azizah, who is also Women, Family and Community Development Minister, said mental illness could cost the country RM105.47bil conomically in 2030.

However, Dr Gomez believes that the numbers could be much higher as suicide cases often go unreported due to social taboo.

“For every report being made, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are probably 10 going unreported,” he adds.

“There are indications that for each adult who died by suicide there may have been more than 20 others attempting suicide,” said WHO on its website

Just last month, a 16-year-old from Sarawak took her own life after running an Instagram poll to determine whether she should “L” or “D”.

It is believed that “L” meant “live” and “D” meant “die”.

The girl jumped to her death after 69% of pollsters allegedly supported the decision for her to kill herself.

This drastic increase in teens committing suicide is not localised to Malaysia.

Also last Thursday, Time Magazine ran a story on a marked uptick in youth committing so-called “deaths of despair.”

The well-established magazine cited a report by the public-health groups Trust for America’s Health and Well Being Trust stating that there has “been a marked uptick in so-called deaths of despair, those involving drugs, alcohol or suicide, among millennials over the last decade.”

According to the report, there was a 35% increase among adults ages 18 to 34 committing suicide between 2007 and 2017.

Drug-related deaths showed the largest increase with 108%, while alcohol-related deaths increased by 69%.

“All together, about 36,000 millennials died “deaths of despair” in 2017, with fatal drug overdoses being the biggest driver.

“Younger Americans report higher rates of depression and anxiety than previous generations.

“While there’s never a single cause of suicide, mental health conditions like these are considered a primary risk factor,” said the article.

Another study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry showed that males aged 13 to 17 had a 28.9% increase in suicide rates a month after the airing of the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why”.

The Netflix series is based on a young adult’s novel of the same name which examines the suicide of 17-year-old Hannah Baker.

Baker had made 13 cassette tapes prior to her death addressed to different people at her school and details how and why they contributed to her suicide.

Their National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reported that the number of deaths by suicide recorded in April 2017 was greater than the number seen in any single month during the five-year period examined by the researchers.

“The findings highlight the necessity

of using best practices when portraying suicide in popular entertainment and in

the media,” the NIMH said in a press statement.

Calling depression “a silent killer”, Dr Gomez likens it to a heart attack.

“It is like a heart attack because it deals with the heart. It deals with our emotional state of being and our sense of who we are,” he adds.

Dr Gomez points out that suicide ideation is an inner cry for help but the signs are not always observable.

“It’s easy for us to say that teachers need to pay more attention (to behaviour patterns) but it’s hard when there are many students to watch,” he says.

Sharing the fact that he once taught in a school with around 50 students in a classroom, he adds that it is not possible for a teacher to know what is going through the minds of each and every one of their students.

“Nonetheless, teachers (and parents) can be trained to look out for signs of depression and suicidal ideation.”

“The first step is to connect with the youth is to make the connection and be a listening ear,” he says.

However, the teacher must have “the heart” to care about their students to notice these behavioural changes.

He adds that based on his own research on Malaysian children and adolescent wellbeing, he found that students had better psycho-social wellbeing when they had supportive teachers.

A supportive and conducive school environment also contributes to higher psycho-social wellbeing in students.

Dr Gomez says that the next step is to “connect” the youth with a mental health professional.

“Many young people contemplating suicide don’t want to die. It’s just that they don’t want to live,” he says.

“Many feel they do not fit in, life is too overwhelming or that no one understands them.”

He adds that sometimes, a sense of missing out on something causes these youths to question whether they will be “accepted by society”, and that creates that sense of “I’m not good enough. What’s wrong with me?”

Social media envy

Dr Gomez says that social media such as Facebook is a leading cause of depression among young people.

“Oftentimes social media is used to portray this sense of success, happiness, enjoyment or fun but that’s only one aspect of human life,” he adds.

“More often than not, they are not going to put a photograph of them when they are depressed. They are not going to post about the red marks they got for their exams.

“What you see on social media is skewed.”

Youth that are vulnerable may start to make comparisons, and if they cannot achieve the same kind of lifestyle as their peers, they risk becoming depressed, he explains.

But banning social media use may not be an option either.

“Instead, it’s about helping young people make sense of what they see on social media.

“Stop comparing yourself as you are not seeing the rest of your friends’ lives. You’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg which is exposed on social media.

“You’re not seeing the rest of the iceberg which is submerged in reality.”

At the same time, Dr Gomez says we cannot force our friends to post about the negative aspects of their lives on social media just to give others a sense of what reality is really like.

Parents pay attention

Parents play a big role in preventing social media addiction which can lead to depression and possible suicide attempts.

Universiti Malaya Centre For Addiction Sciences director Dr Rusdi Abd Rashid says parents should not spend so much time on social media either as their children will model their behaviour.

“Parents should also set the rules at home such as no gadgets allowed during meal times or at night (during bedtime),” he adds.

He also says parents can ban gadgets from being brought into the bedrooms and these rules should apply to everyone at home, not just the children.

For those already addicted to social media, he suggests parents advise their children to delete the apps.

If the child refuses to do so, limit their time spent on social media, says Dr Rusdi.

“There are even apps that can remind you to limit your social media use.

“Apps are available for treatment as well and I’ve been using them for some time for some of my patients.”

He also says that a healthy lifestyle such as regular exercise and socialising with others face-to-face can prevent depression from setting in.

Dr Rusdi adds that parents and teachers should be aware of behavioural changes in their child.

“They can become withdrawn, isolate themselves, easily irritable and lose interest in their hobbies.

“They can also have biological symptoms like inability to sleep properly or sleeping excessively, and their appetite changes.”

There can be an acute drop in a child’s performance at school or the child may turn to substance abuse to cope with their depression.

He says that more awareness campaigns on the dangers of social media addiction needs to be carried out, especially at the school level.

These campaigns will also break the stigma surrounding depression and suicide, he says, adding that this will encourage more people to come forward and seek treatment.

“Mental health awareness can be included in the school syllabus for example, like in the Civics and Citizenship subject.

“Let them know that depression is an illness but it can be treated.

“Early treatment can prevent suicide ideation, which is when the situation becomes very, very severe,” he adds.

Dr Gomez reiterates that preventive measures need to be carried out if we want to save the children from depression and suicide attempts.

“We would lose so many people along the way. Not because they were attacked from the outside but because they were attacked from the inside. And we weren’t there to help them,” adds Dr Gomez.

Those in need of someone to talk to can call the Befrienders KL at 03-7956 8145, 04-281 5161/1108 in Penang, 05-547 7933/7955 in Ipoh or email

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