Suicide epidemic is a concern

THE recent trend of high-profile celebrity suicides in the United States and Europe might not seem relevant to Malaysia. But all signs are that it is indeed a troubling and dangerous phenomenon permeating all strata of society even in this country.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), suicide accounts for about a million deaths annually, with the five countries having the highest rates being Guyana, Lithuania, Kazakhstan, Swaziland and Russia, ranging from 32.5 to 25.3 per 100,000 population. By comparison, the rate for Malaysia is 0.6 per 100,000 population.

But that statistic for Malaysia tends to underplay the absolute number of reported suicides, which is about a couple of hundred a year. That’s already a magnitude in human lives of no small concern, let alone an estimate of attempted suicides possibly five to 10 times that number.

It is equally of concern that suicide rates in Malaysia have increased by 60% since the 1960s, according to a study conducted by the Malaysian Psychiatric Association.

Death by suicide is the ultimate Stage 4 event in the progression of many mental health conditions, whether or not they have ever been recognised and labelled as such.

Suicide affects us all – we face daily challenges and have mental health to manage, be it for ourselves, relatives, colleagues or friends. We must work diligently to help prevent situations that negatively affect mental health and which could escalate into suicide.

For almost three decades, as an international manager, I have seen, counselled and had to deal with many who struggled with lower- grade depression, from shop-floor to executive levels. I can tell you that it feels like a disease because it consumes one’s thoughts and feelings absolutely beyond one’s control. Suicide, then, becomes a choice but one a person feels they must make because they believe they have no other choice – or they have lost all hope.

WHO statistics reveal, even more alarmingly, that suicide is one of the top causes of death worldwide among youth aged 15-29 years (following closely behind road injury and HIV related deaths).

Correspondingly, in Malaysia it is reported that the youth suicide rate is almost twice the national average.

A host of conditions exacerbate mental illness and depression leading to suicide. Among them, deprivation and loneliness; serious personal crisis and loss; chronic pain and terminal illness; alcoholism and drug-abuse; and social exclusion and cultural barriers.

From the individual level to the home, at school and in workplaces, within the community, including religious organisations, and at the national level, there is an urgent need to recognise and help address the root causes of suicide. Let’s make widely known the means that should be easily accessible and give hope to those sadly entrapped in this dismal human catastrophe as well as family and friends trying to support them.

Necessary actions include funding research to identify people at high risk and more effective reporting to help better understand and deal with the nature and extent of the problem at individual and societal levels. And increasing public awareness about the importance of effective mental health care is critical.

Government policies and programmes addressing mental health issues need to be continually reviewed and fine-tuned to reinforce these actions. Also, better coordination with and assistance to non-governmental bodies and research institutions engaged in this crucial area need to be supported.

By working together and collectively making a significant investment in suicide prevention and quality mental health care we can reverse the rising suicide rate.

Rueben Dudley

Petaling Jaya, Selangor

If you are in need of help, call Befrienders in the Klang Valley at 03-7956 8145 and in Penang at 04-281 5161/281 1108. You can also e-mail or contact the Malaysian Mental Health Association at 03-7782 5499.