As a society, we do not like to talk about suicide.
David Satcher, US Surgeon General

Sometime in the early 90's I attended an outdoor concert hosted by several bands, the names of which I can't remember. I'm sure the music was great, but as most live shows from that period of my life, it was mostly forgettable. Except for one thing. Some band came on, maybe Rusty Fork or Kinky Elbow, headed by your typical long haired, ripped jeaned, t-shirted aspiring rock star. In a nutshell he was unremarkable. Then he said it, a phrase that has stuck with me to this day:

We've all got AIDS!

He was right, of course, since at that time we were slowly becoming more and more aware of this relatively new disease, slowly crippling our world and taking from us our loved ones. We were also starting to understand, and accept, that it did not attack only one particular group of people or another and that we were all potentially, directly through infection, or indirectly, through the loss of friends and family, its victims. We've all got AIDS means that we all must take part in its prevention and treatment. It is society's burden, not that of the individual.

The same can be said of suicide.

Consider the following statistics, courtesy of the World Health Organization:

  • in the last 45 years, suicide rates have increased by 60% worldwide
  • suicide is in the top three causes of death among those aged 15-44*
  • every year approximately one million people commit suicide; that is one death every 40 seconds

Suicide is everyone's problem.

The majority of suicides (90-95%) are precipitated by mental illness, most often some form of depression. The first step in suicide prevention is a society-wide debunking of the myths associated with these illnesses. This is best achieved, of course, through public education programs now being implemented worldwide. The Defeat Depression program organized by the College of British Psychiatrists emphasized the need to de-stigmatize mental illnesses and encourage individuals to get help.

Nations such as a Sweden, Norway, Finland, New Zealand and Australia developed comprehensive national strategies for the prevention of suicide. Public and media education was a strong component in all of them as well as the need for the reduction in access to deadly weapons. The US followed suit much later. The following resolution was introduced, and unanimously passed, by Senator Harry Reid in 1997.

Resolved, That the Senate

  1. recognizes suicide as a national problem and declares suicide prevention to be a national priority;
  2. acknowledges that no single suicide prevention program of effort will be appropriate for all populations or communities;
  3. encourages initiatives dedicated to—
    • preventing suicide;
    • responding to people at risk for suicide and people who attempt suicide;
    • promoting safe and effective treatment for persons at risk for suicidal behaviour;
    • supporting people who have lost someone to suicide;
    • developing an effective national strategy for the prevention of suicide; and
  4. encourages the development and promotion of accessibility and affordability of mental health services, to enable all persons at risk for suicide to obtain the services, without fear of any stigma.

The World Health Organization has outlined six basic steps for the prevention of suicide, most of which center on reducing the availability of methods: more effective treatment of mental disorders, gun possession control, detoxification of car emissions, detoxification of domestic gas, control of toxic substance availability, and toning down suicide reports in the media.

My plea to you, as someone who has lost a friend, and as someone who suffers from a mental illness, is this: educate yourself. Read Eco's write up above. Read whatever you can find on the subject. Keep an open mind and make yourself aware. The London Mental Health Foundation released the results of a 3000 person survey, showing that 50% of the respondents were unable to locate a help line to call in the case of a psychiatric emergency. Who would you call?

Although suicide prevention is the responsibility of society as a whole, it starts with the attitudes and perceptions of the individual. We've all got AIDS and we could all be potentially affected by suicide.

* Above AIDS, heart disease and traffic accidents.

Night Falls Fast by Kay Redfield Jamison
World Health Organization