10 September is World Suicide Prevention Day
For most of us, the years of COVID have had their share of doom and gloom. In such a climate, even small pieces of good news are welcome. One such report told us that the suicide rates in 2020 and 2021 had dropped from previous years. One reason why that was so welcome lay in the frequent warning that suicide was a greater threat in the world of COVID. Awareness of the risk may have led us to be more aware of warning signs and to reach out to people who were at risk.
World Suicide Prevention Day reminds us that suicide is about more than statistics. Each occasion when someone, and particularly a young person, takes their own life is a tragedy for themselves and for their friends and relatives. The realisation that so many young lives with all their possibility have been cut off, and that the passion for life has been smothered by disadvantage, by despair or by illness, is horrifying and affecting.
Every death affects others: parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, friends and acquaintances. The effect on the friends of a young person who has taken their own life is particularly poignant. Friends can be overlooked when identifying those who might need support.
World Suicide Prevention Day leads us from recognising the loss that is involved in suicide to ask how we can help prevent similar deaths in future. That change of focus should not distract us from the hard reality of suicide. An important element in prevention will be to help people to reflect and talk about the deaths of people whom they have loved dearly. In our culture, it has been difficult to talk about suicide, and the silence has been very destructive. That taboo may be changing now that we have been made more aware of the risks of suicide and the need to address them.
Because the suicide of people with whom we live is so confronting and distressing, we can be tempted to deny it or to shut it out. It breeds silence. The initial silence of incomprehension that any person would take their own life; the silence of inner confusion in which grief and sympathy are mingled with anger; the eloquent silence saying that we have no words that fit; the silence of shame that suicide should have insinuated itself into our family, our circle; the silence of guilt that we should have anticipated and prevented this death.
The risk of silence is that our grief, anger and despair may fester within it. That is one reason why some relatives of suicides have also taken their own lives. World Suicide Prevention Day invites us to reach out especially to them to encourage them speak about the death of the person whom they loved and about how it has affected them. Our Jesuit Social Services Program, Support After Suicide, has for many years provided a safe environment in which people can break through the silence, fear and shame that so often surround suicide.
Suicide is also associated with disadvantage. Young people who are disadvantaged through lack of access to education and work, through addiction, poverty and homelessness, poor physical and mental health, family violence, and through their contact with the justice system are also vulnerable to suicide. These are the conditions in which despair and isolation can breed, and in which suicide can seem to be preferable to continued life.
To prevent suicide we must build into our society the resources to help adults re-engage with society through work and build a sense of belonging. We must also accompany young people as they struggle to work through issues they encounter that lead to a despair of finding meaning in their lives.
World Suicide Prevention Day is a time for valuing community as the place in which hope can grow and health be restored. It is about listening and talking to one another.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.
If you require further information, urgent help or support on issues raised in this article, please contact the following services: CatholicCare on (02) 8843 2500, Lifeline on 13 11 14, Beyond Blue on 1300 22 46 36, NSW Mental Health Line on 1800 011 511 or the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.