Three ways everyone in Hong Kong can prevent suicide and protect the vulnerable
Paul Yip urges all of society to come together to connect, communicate and care, to better understand and guard against these tragedies that affect thousands of people globally
The World Health Organisation estimates that over 800,000 people commit suicide each year – that’s one person every 40 seconds. It aims to reduce the suicide rate by 10 per cent by 2020. In Hong Kong, the rate has gone down from its historical high of 18.6 per 100,000 in 2003 to 11 per 100,000 in 2015. However, up to 25 times as many people attempt suicide. The costs of providing health care support for those who self-harm in Hong Kong is HK$80 million by 2015 estimates.
Furthermore, there are many, many more people who have been bereaved or are close to someone who tried to take his or her life. Yet suicide is preventable. “Connect, communicate, care” is the theme of this year’s World Suicide Prevention Day, on September 10. These three words are at the heart of suicide prevention.
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First, fostering connections with those who have lost a loved one or have been suicidal themselves is crucial to furthering prevention efforts. Although every individual suicide is different, there are some common lessons to be learned. Those who have been on the brink of suicide can help us understand the complex interplay of events and circumstances that led them to that point, and what saved them or helped them choose a more life-affirming course of action. Those who have lost someone to suicide, or supported someone who was suicidal, can provide insights into how they moved forward. The sheer number of people who have been affected by suicide would make this a formidable network.
Social connectedness reduces the risk of suicide, so being there for someone who has become disconnected can be a life-saving act. Connecting them with formal and informal support may also help. Individuals, organisations and communities all have a responsibility. Social media has shown to be a promising mode to connect the disconnected. We need to be more innovative in engaging those who cannot be engaged in traditional ways.
Second, open communication is vital if we are to combat suicide. In many communities, suicide is shrouded in silence. Stigma about mental illness is still very common. Careful, considered messages about suicide and its prevention are warranted, as is an awareness of how different groups of individuals may receive and interpret this information.
Equipping people to communicate effectively with those who might be vulnerable is an important part of any suicide prevention strategy. Mental first-aid courses have been found to be useful in raising awareness of this. There are some simple ways to help, too. Most relate to showing compassion and empathy, and listening in a non-judgmental way. People who have come through suicidal thinking often say that sensitively managed conversations helped them on their course to recovery.
The media also have an important role to play. Some types of reporting ( prominent and/or explicit stories, for instance) have been shown to be associated with “spikes” in suicide rates, but others – for example, those that describe mastery of suicidal crises – have been shown to have a protective effect.
Third, all the connecting and communicating in the world will have no effect without care. We need to ensure policymakers and planners care enough about suicide prevention to make it a priority, and to fund it appropriately. Suicide is the leading cause of death among those aged 15-29 and it is the seventh leading cause of death in Hong Kong.
We need to make sure clinicians and other service providers care enough to make suicide prevention their core business. And we need to ensure communities care enough to identify and support those at heightened risk. In the suicide prevention project in the North district, it is very encouraging to see the fruits of the joint task force involving the police, Hospital Authority, the Social Welfare, Home Affairs and Housing departments, and many devoted NGOs who have made it possible to improve the safety net and support the vulnerable in our community. There has been a significant reduction in the suicide rate at estates covered by the project, whereas no change has been seen in other districts.
Most of all, we need to ensure we are all caring. We need to look out for others who may be struggling, and let them tell their story in their own way, at their own pace. Those who have been affected by suicide have much to teach us.
Suicide is everybody’s business and together we can respond better. It requires all of us to play a role, to share responsibility to support those at risk, their families and communities. The committee on preventing student suicide has made proposals on how best to tackle the issue within the school system. There are many actions we can take, on many levels, that can help us prevent and reduce the incidence of suicide.
Last, but not least, we need to rebuild relationships. A caring culture and a hopeful future would certainly help. We can all make a difference as gatekeepers and be a blessing to others.
Paul Yip is director of the Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention at the University of Hong Kong