World Mental Health day: 40 seconds of action

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This year’s World Mental Health Day, on 10 October, the global community comes together to focus on suicide prevention.

When high profile and apparently successful people die by suicide we sit up and take notice.

We wonder how it is possible that someone as successful feels that life has no meaning. We ask how it is possible that she or he has lost the will to continue living.

Important cause of death

There are many reasons why people feel helpless and hopeless enough to take their lives.

This year’s World Mental Health Day, on 10 October, the global community comes together to focus on suicide prevention. Globally, a person dies by suicide every 40 seconds! According to the World Health Organisation, an estimated 800 000 people die by suicide annually with 78% of completed suicides in low and middle income countries.

Among people aged 15 to 29 years, suicide is one of the most important causes of death.  In South Africa there are an estimated 11 suicides per 100 000 people or 8% of deaths from all causes. This translates to about two suicides and 20 or more attempts per hour.

Children, young people, men, women, people from rural and urban areas, and people with little or many years of education – death by suicide occurs in all of these groups. 

There are many factors associated with suicides. These include loss of hope and a desire to live due to social isolation, feelings of failure (at school, university or at work), economic stress (unemployment), high levels of work related stress, interpersonal factors such as divorce, illnesses such as HIV, and depression as well being in chronic pain. 

The first step in assisting someone

Society today can be very harsh and lonely place. Social media also creates a certain amount of distance between people. We all have less time to stop and listen or speak to friends, colleagues or family members.

This year’s World Mental Health Day’s theme is “40 seconds of action” All one is asked to do is to spend some time listening to someone who needs to talk about whatever is bothering them. Recognising the signs of someone in distress is the first step in assisting someone.

Some of the signs to be aware of include: sadness, withdrawing from family and friends, feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness, loneliness, guilt, the typical signs of depression (not eating, not sleeping or sleeping all the time, no energy, low libido, poor personal hygiene), abusing alcohol and other substances (more than usual), thoughts of suicide which are sometimes expressed.  

There are a number of examples of what works in preventing people’s stresses taking over their lives to the point that they can’t cope. South Africa has a range of resources in communities, in work places and the health sector to assist people who have lost the will to live. Besides speaking to a friend, trusted family member, a member of the clergy, a respected elder, a traditional healer, organisations like LifeLine and the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) have toll free numbers of that people call to speak to a lay counsellor.

In addition, health professionals in both the public and private sectors are available when people are in distress. It is very important to be compassionate and care – people in distress should not be stigmatised or told that they are being manipulative. Theirs is a genuine cry for help.

Listening to people

A psychiatrist in Zimbabwe trained lay health workers in helping people in problem solving. A bench (called the Friendship Bench) is placed in a quiet area, and local community members meet lay workers to talk about their problems, and are taught simple problem solving techniques.

Critical to this is listening to people and helping them to develop a concrete plan to deal with their everyday concerns and stresses. We often say that it takes a village to raise a child. It is also true that it takes a village to protect a soul that is lost. Anyone can feel desperate enough or lonely enough to contemplate taking their lives.

What is needed is for society at large, communities, families and friends to care enough to lend an ear for just 40 seconds on 10 October and every day to listen and support a friend, colleague or even a stranger.

Let us work towards a more caring society for those that are most vulnerable and in need of our support. Every one of us can make a difference in the lives of others. Let`s improve awareness of the significance of suicide as a global public health problem. Join the conversation on #40seconds and #WorldMentalHealthDay.

Dr Yogan Pillay is DDG (Deputy Director-General) Dept of Health South Africa 

Image credit: iStock

Dr Yogan Pillay

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