Suicide is a widespread public health problem, albeit one that many people find it difficult to talk about, whether they are at risk themselves or have a loved one who is at risk. To combat the stigma that encourages silence, World Suicide Prevention Day was established by the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP) in partnership with the World Health Organization (WHO) on September 10, 2003.
This year’s theme for World Suicide Prevention Day is “One World Connected,” chosen in order to emphasize how important connectedness is to those who may be at risk for suicide.
“Studies have shown that social isolation can increase the risk of suicide, and, conversely, that having strong human bonds can be protective against it.” writes the IASP, “Reaching out to those who have become disconnected from others and offering them support and friendship may be a life-saving act.”
That said, many of those who complete suicide do have strong connections with loved ones. It is important to recognize there are multiple factors that increase the risk of suicide, and perhaps the most influential of these is mental health. Approximately 90% of those who die by suicide in Western nations suffer from at least one mental disorder, so prevention efforts must include connecting people to the mental healthcare services that can help them reduce their risk.
Connecting, of course, requires communication. Unfortunately, a common belief is that asking someone if they are thinking about suicide may encourage them to do so. This unfortunate myth can do much more harm than good. “The truth,” says the Mayo Clinic, is that “when someone is in crisis or depressed, asking if he or she is thinking about suicide can help. Giving a person an opportunity to open up and share their troubles can help alleviate their pain and open a path to solutions.”
This doesn’t mean that all forms of communication are equally beneficial, however. In its first-ever report on suicide prevention, released for World Suicide Prevention Day 2014, the WHO cautions against media coverage that sensationalizes and glamorizes, leading to an increased risk of “copycat” suicides. “Media practices are inappropriate when they gratuitously cover celebrity suicides, report unusual methods of suicide or suicide clusters, show pictures or information about the method used, or normalize suicide as an acceptable response to the crisis or adversity,” says the report. While one man’s gratuitous report may be another’s informative news brief, the WHO describes responsible reporting as “avoiding detailed descriptions of suicidal acts, avoiding sensationalism and glamourization, using responsible language, minimizing the prominence of suicide reports, avoiding oversimplifications, educating the public about suicide and available treatments, and providing information on where to seek help.”
There is still much to learn about suicide prevention, but the good news is that the past few decades have seen great leaps in understanding some of the factors that increase risk for, as well as those that provide protection from, suicide. The awareness message of World Suicide Prevention Day, obviously, is that suicide is preventable. There are therapies that have proven effective, but unfortunately, the stigma associated with mental disorders—and with suicidality—can be a major barrier to seeking help.
An important myth to eradicate is that suicidal thinking is an enduring characteristic. “Heightened suicide risk is often short-term and situation-specific,” writes the WHO. “While suicidal thoughts may return, they are not permanent and an individual with previously suicidal thoughts and attempts can go on to live a long life.”
For more information: