National Institute of Mental Health

Angoda, Sri Lanka

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The Nation - September 5, 2015

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Giving an ear to the faint cries of despair

World Suicide Prevention Day falls on September 10

A Sri Lanka Sumithrayo volunteer reflects on the organization’s role
in preventing suicide and spreading awareness

News reports on suicide incidents aren’t rare when heard and a nation gives them priority because they have a profound impact on the society, starting from the person who commits the act, his family and friends, classmates and co-workers.  A volunteer at Sri Lanka Sumithrayo, who wished to remain anonymous, and works towards suicide prevention told The Nation that responsibility of preventing suicide falls on each and every individual in the society. “Everyone has a role to play in suicide prevention. Everyone can support this by simply having an empathetic ear,” the volunteer said.

‘When a person says that he or she is thinking about suicide, you must always take the comments seriously. Assuming that the person is only seeking attention is a very serious mistake we make. Get help immediately’

According to the recently released World Health Organization (WHO) report ‘Preventing Suicide: A Global Imperative’, over 800,000 people die by suicide across the world each year.  As this volunteer emphasized, identifying the reason for an individual’s suicidal tendencies can be challenging. “There is no single clear trigger factor for suicide. It can be a multitude of factors or a single factor that will trigger this based upon the circumstance and his or her ability to cope with the issue the individual is facing,” she explained. The cause behind a person’s suicide could be biological, psychological, social, cultural as well as environmental. “Therefore all these aspects should be taken into consideration in helping an individual in suicidal thoughts,” she added.

The individual may feel that there are no solutions for problems and no end to pain. They feel helpless, hopeless and isolated. They are unable to think rationally as they are overwhelmed by pain. The Sumitharaya volunteer explaining causes behind these numbers said that the figures, including the numbers in Sri Lanka, are likely to be higher, mainly due to the stigma associated with suicide. “In Sri Lankan context suicidal persons go unnoticed because we fail to listen to them. We grew up in a culture which encouraged us to hide our feelings and bottle up our sorrows. We weren’t encouraged to listen to another person’s feelings,” the volunteer said.

Be a friend
She further explained how a simple act of showing care and concern to someone who may be vulnerable to suicide can become a game-changer. “When a person comes up with such a thought our usual response is ‘Pissu natanne nathuwa inna’ or ‘don’t fool around’. Such words can’t help a suicidal person,” she explained.

A person with suicidal thoughts is a person battling against everyone else in the society. Emotional pain is excruciating that he or she thinks no other person in the world can understand what they are going through. The pain is intolerable that they can only think about ending their lives because other options or solutions are merely invisible.

The volunteer quoting an article by International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP) pointed out, ‘Asking them whether they are okay, listening to what they have to say in a non-judgmental way and letting them know you care can all have a significant impact.’ “In other words, just being their friend can change a lot of things for their betterment,” she emphasized.  The article also mentions that isolation increases the risk of suicide, and, conversely, having strong social connections offers protection against it. So being there for someone who has become disconnected can be life-saving.

“Sometimes we say that people who talk about suicide don’t really commit the act. It is a myth. Always take suicidal comments very seriously,” she stressed. “When a person says that he or she is thinking about suicide, you must always take the comments seriously. Assuming that the person is only seeking attention is a very serious mistake we make. Get help immediately.” She said that these symptoms should be considered as a good sign that the person is in need of an empathetic ear and emotional support.

Talking about suicide is extremely sensitive for both parties. “Accepting your feelings as well as accepting and respecting the feelings of other people is very important.  You need not be a professional to help them. But be extremely careful about the things you say, you don’t want to do further damage,” she said adding that if needed, one must try to encourage the person to get help from a trained professional.

Role of media
She also spoke about the role of media in supporting suicide prevention. “We have given our support in various media awareness programs which spoke about the ethical recommendations of reporting suicide cases. Yet it is very sad to see how some media reports the incidents as if they are in support of the act,” she complained.

When reporting, suicide must be considered as a public health concern rather than a crime. Code of conduct guide book published by the Sri Lanka Press Institute says that reporting mental health issues including suicide should be done in a sensitive manner, so as to not sensationalize incidents of suicide and the methods used for such by persons of unstable mind.

It is advised to avoid reporting that death by suicide was preceded by a single event, such as a recent job loss, divorce or bad grades. It also advises media not to romanticize or promote the story depicting it as a way of achieving goals. It also tells media to avoid using graphical representations or detailed descriptions of methods and instead promote the places where people can seek help.

“But sadly, regardless of the number of awareness programs local media doesn’t seem to follow these guidelines. Reporting like this leaves the public with an overly simplistic and misleading understanding of suicide,” she lamented.

She also mentioned how local artistes can lend a hand in preventing suicide using various forms of art including teledramas, films, stage plays or novels. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be awareness programs. Even art can be used in suicide prevention since it reaches the society more rapidly and effectively than other forms of awareness programs,” she emphasized.

Educating children
She reiterated the importance of spreading awareness in the society about suicide prevention. Since the numbers are high in reported teenage suicide cases, she mentioned that educating children about the risks and ways of seeking help should be given high priority. “We are currently conducting awareness programs in schools, especially in international schools, on invitation.  It’s really difficult to get permission to conduct awareness programs in government schools,” she said adding that  teaching children about coping strategies, assertiveness skills and helping others can play a significant role in prevention process.

Sumithraya volunteers
Sumithrayas, a significant branch of Sri Lanka Sumithrayo, plays an important role in suicide prevention programs in the country. Sri Lanka Sumithrayo is now at no. 60B, Horton Place, Colombo 07, which was gifted by its beloved founder – Joan de Mel.
“We are open every day of the week to provide emotional support for those who are in distress, giving special attention to the cases which may lead to suicide,” is how she explained the aim of the organization.  Every ‘Sumithraya’ (translates to English as ‘Good friends’) supporting this service is a trained volunteer who is willing to make a positive change in the society.  “We meet people face to face or listen to them over the phone. Also, there is a system where we talk to them via emails,” she said adding that they receive roughly 150 calls per month.

“Sometimes there are people who come here every day. We do our part to the best of our capabilities, being their friend and if they need further support we direct them to the professionals since we do not provide therapy or medication,” she said appreciating the support they receive from the National Hospital.  She further mentioned that they give priority to maintaining confidentiality of people who seek emotional support from them explaining why they want to be anonymous in the society for what they do.

“Whatever they tell us, they tell us because they trust us to maintain the confidentiality. If they meet us outside the Sumithrayas setting they shouldn’t be feeling uncomfortable. They should be able to place their complete trust in us in order to a better relationship,” she said.

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