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The challenge of reducing suicides

 | July 31, 2012

There are no ready solutions, but policy-makers must address such problems as the break-up of traditional family institutions, the erosion of moral and cultural values and the failure of the education system.

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“It was shocking,” said a woman about the suicide of her brother. It happened more than half a lifetime ago, but the memory apparently still hurts.

Madam See, who is in her late 70s, was recalling a tragedy that happened when she was in her 20s. “He committed suicide drinking a bottle of toxic ointment after quarrelling with my elder brother over a motorcycle.”

Globally, about one million people are estimated to die each year from suicide. To put it another way: experts have calculated that someone somewhere dies of suicide every 40 seconds. And their projection for the future is even more depressing. They say that by the year 2020, there will be a successful suicide every 20 seconds.

Will punishing those who attempt to commit suicide help to reduce the rate? Social workers do not think so; they say it’s more important to address the causes of suicide.

So there was quite an audible sigh of relief recently when Health Minister Liow Tiong Lai disclosed that the government was likely to repeal or amend the provision in the penal code that allows for the punishment of those who attempt suicide.

Still, many wonder whether Malaysian officialdom would even have considered the possibility of amending or repealing the law if not for the outcry over the highly publicised suicide case of 22-year-old Alviss Kong. And even if the law is finally thrown out, is there anything the government is doing to tackle the root causes of suicide?

Of course, the government must take the blame for its slow reaction to public complaints that health authorities have not given enough attention to mental health. However, there seems to be no ready answers to the question of what can be done to reduce suicide deaths.

“Punishing attempted suicides will not reduce the rates and surely not help to treat patients,” says an article posted on March 2, 2011 on the Malaysian Health Law Debates blog.

If statistics are to be believed, our nation’s suicide rate stood at mid-level globally, at 10 to 13 per 100,000, with those aged between 16 and 25 being in the high-risk group.

With an average of 60 per month or a total of 425 suicide deaths between January and August in 2010, we share similar statistics with the most developed country in the world, the United States. The most serious side of this picture is that youth suicide is increasing at the greatest rate.

Statistics showing suicide deaths, like any other indicators using mere figures, can be cold and impersonal. Policy-makers, by and large, treat statistics like lamp posts to support their policies instead of using them to gain knowledge about social problems and how to resolve them.

Expensive treatment

The high cost of mental diseases to a nation can be frightening. Reports about children shooting children, motorists beating up one another, spouses killing themselves after murdering their children, teenagers hanging themselves or jumping off buildings, and other such stories have become common in our complacent society.

Most people would agree that these are the by-products of our pressurised modern lifestyle – our pursuit of a decent livelihood and reasonable physical comfort have brought about hardships, conflicts, stress and increased vulnerability to mental illness.

The break-up of traditional family institutions, the erosion of moral and cultural values and the failure of the education system have all contributed to the social malady.

In many countries, deinstitutionalising – or taking mentally ill people out of institutions – has been shown to have helped mental patients recover. Apparently, it helps to make them feel less marginalised and accepted as members of families and communities.

In Korea, married couples are encouraged to take part in group psychotherapy sessions, along with psychologists, social workers and professional psychiatrists. And these sessions are aired for public viewing.

Newly married young couples are also encouraged to go to their family doctors for physical as well as mental health checks.

In China, which has one of the world’s highest suicide rates, married couples with disputes are taking part in talk shows, spilling out their unhappiness and displeasure in public and seeking alternate views and solutions to their troubled marriages.

Experts are of the view that these psychotherapeutic sessions, either done in private or for public viewing, do work – on the assumption that every person has within himself the cures for his own sufferings and these cures can be facilitated through a trusting, supportive relationship with a psychotherapist.

What is perhaps the most controversial treatment for mental illness that has been made public in recent times is related in the book “Many Lives, Many Masters” by American psychiatrist Brian Weiss.

The New York Times bestseller, now in its 20th anniversary edition, tells the true story of Dr Weiss and his young patient, Catherine. The psychotherapist said he was astonished when Catherine began recalling past life traumas that seemed to hold the key to her mental depression and anxiety attacks.

Using past-life therapy, Weiss was not only able to cure his patient but made remarkable revelations that test the hypothesis that many mental illnesses could have been inherited from previous lifetimes.

“Sometimes patients who are affected by chronic and often severe phobias are able to clear their symptoms in only one or two sessions,” he said.

Unlike those clinically depressed, most of us naturally learn to trust that emotional pain decreases with time. We gradually acquire the wisdom that life is often at odds with our expectations.

But there are the unfortunate few in whose minds such pain becomes exaggerated into a tyrannical judge, jury and executioner. For these unfortunates, we need a more humane policy and not laws that punish them.

Stanley Koh is the former head of MCA’s research unit and is now a FMT columnist.


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