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It seems almost everyone knows someone who has committed suicide. Even if the act seemingly came from nowhere, or as a spur of the moment decision, many people who commit suicide are affected by brain health disorders. Their often silent pleas for help may have gone unnoticed in health care systems which are ill-equipped to handle mental challenges. Suicide is rapidly becoming a leading cause of death, particularly in certain age groups. What are we going to do as a society to help people when they are suffering?
We often look to celebrities as role models, and we are shocked when these people (who are, after all, normal human beings, too) commit suicide. Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain, Robin Williams, Chester Bennington, Kurt Cobain, Pratusha Banerjee, Charlotte Dawson, Malik Bendjelloul, Avicii. Around 1,000,000 die by suicide around the world each year. Every 40 seconds another person takes their own life.1
The recent show on Netflix “13 Reasons Why” may have had an impact on suicide numbers. Boys between ten and seventeen seemed most at risk in the nine-month period following the show’s airing, with an increase in the suicide rate by nearly 30%. The show’s creators were questioned as to whether they were doing enough to prevent suicides, and if the discussions were harmful or helpful to youths.2
While the answers aren’t immediately clear, it is clear we must as humans embrace the idea that brain health matters and the conversation about suicide can no longer be taboo.
I think suicide is sort of like cancer was 50 years ago. People don't want to talk about it, they don't want to know about it. People are frightened of it, and they don't understand when actually these issues are medically treatable.
Statistics from around the world are sobering. We can no longer poke our heads in the sand and refuse to talk about brain health and the effects of poor health on our wellbeing. Rates of suicide vary greatly by country and region (suicides per 100K people):3
For the world population between 15 and 29 years of age, suicide is the second leading cause of death. Over 79% of suicides in 2016 occurred in low and middle-income countries. 20% of worldwide suicides are caused by self-poisoning, usually with pesticides. Hanging and firearms are also common methods.4
Everyone with depression doesn’t automatically want to commit suicide, and everyone who commits suicide isn’t necessarily depressed. But, there is a link between suicide and brain health disorders such as depression. A study followed 207 patients who were being treated for suicide ideation, and after a 5-10 year follow-up period, 14 had committed suicide. The Hopelessness Scale and the pessimistic part of the Beck Depression Inventory (two tools used by therapists) predicted 91% of the eventual suicides.5
It isn’t normal to suffer from depression during any part of our life cycles. It’s not a given in young adulthood, it’s not typical when we age, and we don’t have to suffer quietly any longer. Nearly 90% of people with clinical depression can be treated6, but they have to seek treatment first. If you know of someone struggling with depression or know of someone facing challenging and stressful conditions in their life, reach out to them. A kind word can be what they need to take that first courageous step.
Depression can be treated, and it doesn’t have to result in suicide. People who make suicide attempts have an opportunity to seek treatment, but only if treatment options are readily available, affordable, and convenient. 40% of people who eventually die by suicide made an earlier attempt.7
As leaders, we can have an active role in the brain health of our employees. We can set policies that support and encourage healthy brains and bodies. We can be the force of change, but only if we have the courage and determination to do so.
We all have a duty to society to support our citizens, and especially our young people who are most at risk for suicide. Suicide does not respect race, religion, ethnicity, where you live, what you do, or who you love. It’s time we opened the conversation, and by speaking about suicide we can hopefully help save lives. Stay tuned for my next article as we explore anxiety disorders.
About my Brain Institute
In 2009, Relmi Damiano co-founded the About my Brain Institute alongside scientist and leadership expert Silvia Damiano. Their vision is to democratise leadership & neuroscience by shaking up how we develop the human, the leader and the creative we all carry within.