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10 Sep 2021

Suicide is preventable and we can all play a part

The World Health Organisation estimates that more than 700,000 people die by suicide worldwide every year. Today we mark World Suicide Prevention Day, whose theme this year concerns the role we can all play in helping to prevent people taking this irrevocable step.

World Suicide Prevention Day arrives this year just days after official figures showed that there were 5,224 registered suicides across England in Wales last year.

Fall in suicide rates

2 in 3 people have experienced suicidal thoughts and feelings

The Office for National Statistics noted that this represented a significant fall in the rate of suicides on the previous year, which it attributed to a fall in male suicides and delays in registering deaths due to the restrictions imposed by the pandemic.

In spite of this welcome decline, the one great uncertainty is how the impact of the pandemic will begin to play out over the coming years, once furlough schemes and other government support begins to wind down, and once people begin their return to the stresses and demands of ‘normal’ life.

Moreover, many people under the care of mental health services, or who might have sought help for the first time, have found it difficult or impossible to access treatment over the last 18 months.

Already overstretched services have wrestled with the additional demands placed upon them by factors such as staff absence due to Covid and the lack of face-to-face appointments, which has led to drops in referrals and fewer people seen.

We are now hearing from clinicians who tell us that not only are the numbers of people they are seeing returning to more normal levels, but that they are much more acutely unwell, as their condition has deteriorated due to delays, often of months, before being able to begin treatment.

No time for complacency

We have been, in a certain sense, under an aesthetic over the last 18 months, and the long-term consequences for the nation’s mental health are unclear. All of which suggests that despite the reassuring national figures released this week, this is no time to be complacent.

With this in mind, SANE welcomes the theme of this year’s World Suicide Prevention Day, which recognises the vital role we can all play.

Simply put, we believe the majority of suicides are preventable, and in SANE’s own experience, conversation and simple interventions save lives.

This is borne from our latest survey of people who use our support services, which found that over the course of the pandemic 64% said they’d experienced suicidal thoughts and feelings, and of these, 43% said these had become more acute in the last year. But 89% said that their contact with SANE had a positive impact on their mental health.

As one caller told us: “I know that I would not be here today if it wasn’t for SANE. It goes back to the constant support and care that I am receiving from your volunteers.”

Another said: “Everyone has been lovely, and not shied away from me talking about suicide. Each person at SANE brings something different but there’s always an underlying sense of warmth, strength and encouragement.”

Suicidal exhaustion

In truth, the majority of people who are suicidal do not want to die. They just find continuing as they are unbearable and are looking for a way out of the anguish they are in. Most people we have spoken to who have attempted suicide tell us they are happy that they survived and glad to have a second chance.

Our own research into this area identified ‘suicidal exhaustion’ as playing a key role in the decision to attempt suicide. That is to say, a person’s own lack of worth and lack of trust means difficult feelings are hidden or suppressed, possibly for months or years. The effort required to ‘put on a brave face’ slowly exhausts you, with no avenue to speak candidly or authentically.

And this is where friends, family, neighbours, all of us can help, by opening up an avenue for those we are concerned about, so that they may be encouraged to speak about those difficult, and potentially suicidal feelings. And we should take heart in the fact that our positive intention is far more important than whether or not we get the words precisely right.

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