Life is the most precious possession every being on the planet has. Ironically, we don’t see how important human life is until we see it cease to exist. And we definitely do not identify with the concept of mental health until somebody takes their own life.

A suicide is a horrible event, and I can be sure of this having seen one very closely in the last year. It does not just affect the deceased, in fact it ruins the person’s family and friends and leaves on them, indelible scars of mental pain and agony. Every time a person chooses to take their own life, it hurts the progress of the world because every life counts. I have seen first hand accounts of how the aftermath of a suicide can disrupt normal life and bring about the worst in people, and those sights were rather discouraging.

Often after such terrible tragedies, some of us suddenly transition into wise individuals, posting deep messages of how we “need to encourage mental health” and how “we are going to be there” for people who need us even in the darkest of times. This sounds great, but both you and I know how all this is just half-boiled sympathy born out of a sense of obligation to post on social media. After all, actions speak louder than words. So, if we really have to make a difference, we would have to do better than a shamelessly copied Instagram story, that would evaporate in 24 hours.

Suicide is a Global Problem

As of 2017, suicide is ranked as the 15th highest cause of deaths in the world (Figure 1). It is also highly useful to notice that out of these top 15 causes, dementia is the only other cognitive disorder along with suicide.

Figure 1

Dementia is widely recognized as a syndrome that directly impacts the ability to think and perform everyday activities [1]. But, suicide on the other hand is not a deterioration of the mind as a whole. It can be more related to a loss of spirit, a sense of hopelessness and even an impulsive decision at times engendered by great pain and suffering. Therefore, it becomes very important to realise the gravity of the situation - Suicide is the largest cause of mental stress related deaths in the world.

Is it still sane to think an obligatory post will solve the issue of suicide?

According to the WHO Mental Health Gap Action Programme, 14% of the world’s burden of disease is caused by mental, neurological and substance use disorders [2]. It is also a fact from the programme that every 40 seconds, 1 person commits suicide. This means that for every day we spend complaining about how our lives are not as good as we would want them to be; 2,160 people give theirs because they can’t live with themselves anymore. This is very sad, so much potential burnt to ashes. Depression, which is one of the leading causes of mental instability and suicide affects 264 million people [3]. This means that for every 100 people we meet, there is a high chance of knowing at least 3 people who would be fighting depression. Based on this plausible calculation, we could easily meet up to 80,000 people in our lifetime who ail from depression. Putting 1 and 1 together, its likely that we would meet at least 2,400 people fighting with depression in our life - How many can we even identify? And if we can’t identify them, how do we help them?

Surely, you still do not think that an obligatory post will solve the issue of suicide!

If we are to help bring about a positive change, there is a lot more we must do than just raise a voice. And our contributions must start with the easiest step we could take - Understand the Global Landscape.

Mental Health is a Globally Under-represented Challenge

If you have ever been outraged by how your friend circle, family or organization does not understand the importance of mental health, then you must know that this ignorance is not just limited to the people we know personally. The world on a whole does not spend enough of its resources and time on negating the ill effects of mental trouble. The main reason to such indifference could be the fact that unlike other diseases, diseases to a person’s mental state are often not easily identified. We are complex creatures and it would often take much more than an untrained person to decipher our psychological condition. This is precisely the reason why we often get responses like “It’s okay. You will do fine.”, “Oh that’s nothing. You should be happy with what you have.”, “Stop all this cribbing. Act mature.”, from people when we are in mental distress. It is not that people don’t want to help, it is only that they do not know how to do so. After all, we receive too little fundamental education on mental health during schooling - How can we expect people to do something that they do not know about?

While it is in contemporary fashion to call out people’s oblivion regarding mental health on social media, we also need to understand that an eloquently-structured post intended to put people to shame for something they never intended to do is not going to be of any help in promoting mental health.

An obligatory post cannot help people improve themselves and upgrade their perspective.

The 2017 report by WHO’s Mental Health Atlas initiative provides some very useful insights into the global state of mental health [4]. The global median number of mental health workers is as low as 9 per 100,000 population, with some countries having as low as even 2 per 100,000 population. Now think of it this way - The world severely lacks trained professionals who could help people with mental trouble. Without receiving the right kind of help, mishaps are just a moment away.

As per the Global Mental Health Infographic released by WHO in 2015, 45% of the world’s population live in a country where there is less than one psychiatrist per 100,000 population. Mental health receives very low amounts of financial resources with low-income countries having a median figure of only about 2 USD per person. In the high-income countries, this figure is at 50 USD. While more than 75% of WHO’s member nations have a standalone mental health policy, several of these are created without the suggestions or assistance of people with mental troubles. That is indeed a deep cavity in the system and one that organizations like WHO have been trying to fill in.

On the bright side, since it’s advent in 2011 Project Atlas has reported significant improvements in how nations are improving their standards and facilities for mental care. The reduction in suicide attempts as well as mortality rates have been a significant priority and it was established that around 60% of WHO’s member states had active suicide mortality data - Data that could help policy makers understand the nature of suicide and work towards chalking out a solution to prevent it. As of 2017, around 35% of nations disclosed as to having a national suicide prevention strategy. While this number might seem very low, it is still higher than what the figures were in the years before. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs) has in its list the core objective to reduce suicide mortality rate by a third by 2030.

Figure 2

Figure 2 describes a comparison between country-wise suicide rates in 1990 and 2017. For all the countries lying above the dotted grey line(most countries in this case), suicide rates have decreased in 2017 when compared to 1990 and this is a very positive sign.

The world is not at a standstill, it’s improving everyday. But, the real question is are we?

Strike at the Root if you want a Change

Every time a celebrity commits suicide, a majority of the world goes into “active message sharing” mode. Everybody starts telling people about how they will be there to listen to people talk. Everybody becomes a mental coach. Your intentions might not be ridden with malice but the world needs more from you, because you are important. There is no greater resource than a clear mind, driven by rational ideas.

This might be highly unpopular opinion, but I will say it anyways - People do not need someone to talk to, they need someone to understand them. There is a huge difference between being there for someone and listening to someone. When I was going through a period of hopelessness and felt that my life would be ruined because I was not good enough for the IITs, I talked about it to all my peers at school. They all had the same answers, “Me too bro. I so feel you.”. No, they didn’t. This was just petty obligation. I myself end up doing this at times even now. But, when I talked about my troubles to my parents, they didn’t tell me to chill about it. Instead, they heard me out, let me speak and didn’t throw suggestions at me until I asked them to help me. Sometimes, silence is way more important than trying to help.

This brings me to the root of why people are not usually able to talk about their mental state. There are essentially 4 different reasons I can identify with:

  • Social stigma : Since childhood, we have been indirectly taught that another’s opinion matters more in our life than our own. In such an environment, it’s never easy to talk about our inner fears. Most times, we prefer to keep it in us and endure, than be subjected to the horrible judgement of a two-faced world.
  • People find it funny : Yes. This is a real point that nobody is talking about. We always have seen people laugh of another’s insecurity and claim, “Ah, that’s so silly. LOL”. A pointless laugh at someone’s fears has exacerbating effects.
  • People don’t understand : Sometimes, even after trying too hard people fail to understand how another feels. This causes us to altogether drop the idea of talking to someone as the effort is usually futile.
  • The ghosts of our past : Not all of us are proud of our actions in the past. Sometimes, we do wrong. But even if we reform our ways at a later stage, the ghosts of our past haunt us and we are too embarrassed to talk to the world about it. We fear backlash and of course we should - The majority of the world is too shallow to forgive.

Unsurprisingly, we see how most of the reasons leading to suicide are not merely based on the actions of the person who commits it. The main driver to such a tragedy is the inaction of the community that the person is a part of.

The “One size fits all” ideology is an extremely lazy approach to dealing with the promotion of mental health. The need of the hour is to be empathetic towards people - Put yourself in their shoes and try to understand why people act like they act. Empathy gives you the solutions to other’s problems, unlike readily available sympathy that does not bring about any significant change in the contemporary world.

What can you do to help?

While international organizations like the UN and WHO continue to make significant improvements in the state of mental health in the world, the onus is on us to inculcate these practices in our communities and work towards a unified approach in dealing with issues of mental strain. As individuals, we are not all powerful. But through our collective actions, there is a lot we could achieve. However, it becomes increasingly important to know what actions we could take - We are over imaginative creatures. So, very often our suggestions are nothing but unicorns, impractically wonderful. The best way to ensure that we set realistic goals for ourselves is to identify with the existing research in the field. Figure 3 does provide a great outlook on the same. It is one among the several important foundations detailed in WHO’s 2014 report on preventing suicide [5].

Figure 3: Key risk factors for suicide aligned with relevant interventions

Based on the above diagram and based out of a first hand experience, here are 14 steps we all can take as lone individuals in bringing about a wave of positive social change with regards to mental health and suicide prevention :

  1. Avoid all kinds of discriminations towards individuals based on their caste, color, religion, skillsets, cognitive abilities, personal choices and public opinions.
  2. If you really must criticise an opinion, do it by providing constructive feedback. If you have nothing valuable to offer, do not exercise your vocal chords.
  3. Don’t be a cyber bully. Worse, don’t be a cyber idiot. If you are living in an age with internet, realise its a privilege - Use it for whatever you want, as long as you don’t hurt people without cause.
  4. Hear people out, don’t tell them what to do unless they ask you for your opinion. Don’t make it about “you being there”. A person’s depression is not your gateway to getting brownie points for kindness.
  5. Do not overly protect people, especially children. Teach them to be self-reliant and self-sufficient to a large extent. You can watch all the “feel good” movies in the world, but at the end if you can’t stand up for yourself, nothing matters.
  6. If you have contacts with people at your organization or university or neighbourhood and also time to do so, build a community to promote mental health. Have weekly sessions, talk about your fears, allow people to express theirs and invite experts to be a part of it.
  7. Do not “try” to make people happy. Just treat them normally. Don’t force them to share their troubles with you. The more you force, the more they will resist.
  8. Discuss openly about how suicide is an extremely dastardly step. Let people know how their moment of escapade from troubles is paid by their loved ones with the agony of a lifetime.
  9. Do not shy away from praising a person for their ideas. Maybe a single word of praise will help people realise their worth in the world. The global economy loses about 1 trillion USD every year in productivity due to depression and anxiety. So, every mind counts.
  10. In the event of a suicide, respond responsibly to the aftermath. Be ready to seek out the truth behind what happened, why it happened and how such a tragedy could be averted in the future. Don’t just use this as a medium to exert your personal motives.
  11. Don’t connive at what you hear and do not slap your version of truth on people around you. WHO has specified some very reasonable guidelines on how the media should report suicides. If you are voicing out a case of suicide you know about, be responsible. There have been scientific studies that affirm that sensationalised cases often might lead to further attempts of suicide [6]. Responsible steps (based on [7]) that we could follow in such a case :
    • Avoid language that sensationalizes or normalizes the act - Suicide is not an option to a problem
    • Avoid undue repetition of the stories - Do not glorify a person’s tragedy
    • Abstain from explicitly describing the method of suicide - Respect the person’s demise
    • Abstain from posting sensitive images or videos of the attempt - Respect the person and his family’s right to privacy
    • Do not talk about things you don’t fully understand - Understand the complete story before you play the crude blame game
    • Provide support to the bereaved, everything else can wait
    • Understand the root cause of the tragedy and take steps as a community to ensure the prevention of future tragedies - Think as the deceased, about the support they would have needed; do not plug in your personal wants and views shamelessly
  12. If you are a person or an organization with great power, understand that any sensitive action you perform could lead to serious repercussions and mental stress to affected individuals. Ensure you also have the means to provide mental aid and support and also to mollify the damage caused, else it would lead to very difficult situations.
  13. Provide support in terms of your physical presence to the ones close to the deceased. You don’t need to do anything fancy like writing a poem. All you need to do is be there, be quite and offer your shoulder if they need it.
  14. Finally, mutual acts of kindness go a long way in refining human civilization. Try to treat people as you would want them to treat you. You might not know them, but a gesture of kindness from a stranger might make their day. It sure does make mine!

A Final Note

Mental health is not invisible. It is just hidden by people because they feel that the world is not ready to accept their issues. Your obligatory social media posts will not help anybody come forward and trust you. People do not say it, but they sure understand your scarcely credible promise. Ask yourself - Is a social media rant the best we can do when somebody loses their life? No, there is so much more we can do.

The world needs empathy, not cheap sympathy.

References

  1. Dementia Fact Sheets - WHO
  2. WHO Mental Health Gap Action Programme
  3. Depression Fact Sheets - WHO
  4. WHO Mental Health Atlas 2017
  5. Preventing suicide - A global imperative
  6. Suicide - Our World in Data
  7. Preventing Suicide - A Resource for Media Professionals