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Suicide prevention: Why it’s critical

mental health Copyright: silentgunman / 123RF Stock Photo suicide prevention concept.
Image credit: silentgunman / 123RF Stock Photo

The spectrum of mental health disorders is diverse, but what is uniform among them is that they are noncommunicable diseases (NCDs). Suicide, tragically, is an outcome of a number of mental health disorders. This is why suicide prevention is so important.

“The Noncommunicable Diseases and Mental Health (NMH) Cluster is concerned with the rapid rise of noncommunicable diseases, mental disorders, injuries and violence,” asserts the World Health Organization (WHO). “These conditions represent one of the major health challenges to global development in the 21st century and are collectively responsible for 72 percent of all deaths. Despite popular belief, the rapid rise of these conditions predominantly affects low- and middle-income countries [LMICs].” 

India, itself a member of the bracket of countries designated as an LMIC, is affected by mental health disorders acutely. Last year, a study estimated one in seven Indians are affected by such conditions. This is not a mere statistic. The figure encompasses human suffering, that of the individual fighting the condition and the loved ones surrounding them who are witnessing that struggle.

As I wrote for Health Issues India on World Mental Health Day last year

“More than 100 countries will observe World Mental Health Day this year, at the national, regional, district, and local levels. This year, the World Health Organization (WHO) has launched a ‘forty seconds of action’ campaign – its name referencing the fact that one person commits suicide every forty seconds. The need is for World Mental Health Day to stimulate momentum towards achieving equitability and fairness in the lives of the millions of Indians affected by mental health disorders, so that they no longer have to suffer in silence and languish without access to affordable, high-quality treatment.”

The U.S. songwriter Michael Altman penned the song “Suicide is Painless”, in which the chorus reads: “Suicide is painless; It brings on many changes; And I can take or leave it if I please.” Suicide, far from being painless, induces anguish as much as it is the byproduct of it. Suicide, a common misconception goes, is a selfish act. It is not. It is a reaction to extreme and painful suffering. And it is a multifaceted tragedy that so many in India – and across the world – do it. 

Any death is tragic. I would argue that there is, however, a singular quality to the tragedy of suicide. To find oneself in the state of such desperation and despair that ending one’s own life is the only recourse that makes sense is a societal failure of the highest order. It is why we must invest in suicide prevention. 

World Suicide Prevention Day – observed yesterday – came at a time when we are vulnerable. We are angry, sad, and afraid. Many of us grieve. Many of us are frustrated. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a number of high-profile cases of suicide. As such, to quote a study published earlier this year,

“Considering the extreme psychological impacts related to COVID-19, there emerges a need for countrywide extensive tele-mental health care services.”

In late-July, The Times of India reported “a spike in self-harm, suicidal ideation amid COVID pandemic.” The report, citing a study by the Bengaluru-based Suicide Prevention India Foundation (SPIF), outlined that “the rates of relapse among people who had recovered from a mental health condition has risen and due to the spike in need for their services, mental health professionals are also experiencing caregiver fatigue…across the country, mental health experts are having to deal with an increasing number of people, particularly youths, showing suicidal tendencies triggered by a sense of uncertainty brought about the pandemic.”

As I wrote for Health Issues India on the observance of World Suicide Prevention Day last year, “according to WHO data, 2.2 lakh lives are lost to suicide in India every year, a rate of 16.3 deaths per 100,000 people and representing approximately a quarter of total lives lost to suicide worldwide. India’s is also the highest suicide rate in southeast Asia. The WHO notes that, globally, suicide is the second leading cause of death among those aged between fifteen and 29. In India, most suicides occur among those aged fifteen to 39, with women more likely to take their own lives than men (as previously reported by Health Issues India, mental healthcare in India is plagued by gender disparity).

In addition, I noted “for all Indians living with mental health issues, the treatment gap is staggering. More than ten percent of Indians are affected by mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression, which affect 38 million and 56 million people respectively in the country. These figures translate to around 150 million Indians in need of mental healthcare but, as President Ram Nath Kovind pointed out in 2017, just ten percent of those in need of mental healthcare in India can avail it. According to the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, the mental health treatment gap in India numbers between fifty and seventy percent.”

The simple fact is that suicide is not painless – but it is preventable. Suicide prevention is an investment societies everywhere need to make – including India. Lakhs of lives are lost needlessly, when there are manifold opportunities to help those in need and at risk. COVID-19 has affected Indians’ mental health in a detrimental way. Since the outset of the pandemic, the number of Indians affected by mental health disorders has risen to as many as one in five. But it is important to remember this mental health crisis is not the result solely of a pandemic – this is a pre-existing condition and ought to be treated as such. 

Contact details for mental health support in India can be accessed here. 

If you are suicidal or experiencing suicidal thoughts, visit your nearest hospital or contact AASRA on 91-22-27546669 or Sneha India on 91 44 24640050 helpline. A list of other suicide helplines can be accessed here.

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