Society needs greater awareness about suicide
The hanging deaths of two celebrities remind us of the cost of depression, and we should recognise the warning signs of those at risk and be willing to help
Suicide is too often treated as a statistic similar to that of death by natural causes. It is not a taboo subject, but reporting and discussion often reflect respect for privacy at a time of unfathomable loss – until it involves a celebrity.
Then the boundaries of privacy are pushed back. The means, the underlying cause, which is usually depression, possible warning signs of self-destruction, and what might have been done to head off tragedy all become legitimate topics.
That is not entirely a bad thing, if it prompts discussion of depression and other forms of mental illness that exact a toll on society not often recognised. There is not enough discussion. More would foster greater understanding of an illness that can strike anyone in any family anywhere at any time.
More people would receive the help they need and more families, friends and colleagues would be alert to danger signs.
Celebrity chef and author Anthony Bourdain and fashion icon Kate Spade both hanged themselves last week, in eastern France and New York respectively, apparently after battles with depression.
The media is generally discouraged from reporting detail of suicides owing to the concerns of mental health experts about “contagion”, or copycat self-harm. Indeed, they fear that the news coverage of Bourdain and Spade will soon prove a case in point.
Suicide rates across the United States are reported to have risen since actor Robin Williams hanged himself in 2014.
Hong Kong’s suicide rate has fallen steadily from a peak of 18.8 per 100,000 in 2003 to 12.6 in 2016. But with psychiatric services in the public health system struggling to meet demand, social and economic pressures could easily push it up again.
An example is a rising suicide rate among the middle-aged in the US, linked to economic setbacks and opioid abuse.
Mental health problems, often undiagnosed, are usually involved. Experts say knowing behavioural warning signs and who is at risk among family, friends and colleagues, and prompting professional intervention may help head off tragedy.
There is a need for every sector of society to help promote greater awareness and education.