Studies worldwide have estimated that 20% of the population has a lifetime risk of suffering from depression. To put things in perspective, one out of five people have the risk of suffering from a major depressive episode at some point in their lives. If we try and estimate the number of lives depression impacts, these numbers would be much higher, as depression does not impact the individual alone, but also has an impact on the sufferer’s family and close ones. It is estimated that 300 million people around the globe are battling depression this very moment. The WHO estimates that depression is a leading cause of disability. At its worse, depression can lead to suicide. Depression contributes to 90% of suicides. There are over 800,000 suicides every year, out of which 200,000 are reported from India. For every completed suicide, 20 more are attempted. Over one third of suicides are committed by young people less than 30 years of age. In India, suicides are the second leading cause of deaths in young people aged 15-30 years, which means that more people in this age bracket die as a result of suicides than of infectious diseases or natural calamities.
Depression is that common. The concern about growing suicide rates is glaring in our face. Yet we know so little about catching the early signs of depression or suicidal risk. While most people know what to do for first aid in case of a medical emergency, most people are caught off guard and don’t know how to react when they find themselves or someone else in a state of mental health crisis, or in need of “mental- health first aid”. Lack of awareness about signs of depression and suicidal risk, as well as stigma attached to reaching out for treatment of mental health issues delay timely intervention and the results can be disastrous.
Therefore, there is a need to spread awareness about depression and suicide. Depression is treatable, suicides are preventable. If you know someone who is suffering from depression or may be suicidal, extend support by reaching out to them, talking to them and helping them get timely treatment from mental health care professionals. It may help to take the individual’s next of kin into confidence as well. Safety of the person must be ensured and therefore close supervision may be needed. In case of imminent risk of suicide, it is advisable to take help from emergency services including crisis intervention helplines as well as the police if needed, to help safeguard the person and facilitate bringing them to a hospital for treatment.
There are many stages an individual goes through when they are suicidal, from thinking about death to acting on it. Sometimes an individual may talk about suicide or even make hesitation attempts of lesser severity before carrying out a drastic act. Often, these preludes go unnoticed or are ignored, while in reality they warrant urgent medical attention from a mental health care professional. Persons suffering from depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, addictions and other psychiatric disorders are at a higher risk of suicide. Personality factors like emotional instability, impulsivity and poor coping skills may make an individual more vulnerable to self-harm. Social isolation and lack of support system may make coping more difficult for someone with suicidal tendencies. Negative life events like death of a dear one, financial loss, relationship difficulties or failures may act as triggers for self-harm in individuals already at risk. Also, thinking patterns with preoccupation with death or feelings of hopelessness may indicate a high suicidal risk. Certain behaviours like giving away personal belongings, preparing a will, meeting all family and friends for saying goodbye or collecting things to carry out a suicidal act in individuals who are at risk may be warning signs that must not be taken lightly. It is important to identify these red flag signs as they may help in getting timely intervention.
Social media provides a strange environment where one is potentially connected to thousands of people, while being in an isolated physical environment. In the past decade, there has been a disturbing trend of increasing number of people using social media to live stream their acts of self-harm. The psyche behind this is complicated and involves many aspects that contribute to it. Individuals at risk for suicide may post about feeling suicidal or drop hints on social media, or live stream self-harm acts of prolonged duration or lesser severity, which subconsciously may be a mix of attention seeking behaviour as well as a genuine cry for help, hoping that someone would interrupt them or reach out to them to provide them with some help and relief. Sometimes, such acts may also be carried out with an intention of ‘punishing’ someone else who the suicidal person attributes their distress to, to manipulate others to give in to their demands if any, or as an attempt to draw attention to a message they may be trying to convey. However, such acts of live streaming of suicides may be disturbing for those who are watching and society as a whole. People watching the live stream may fail to respond either due to a feeling of bystander apathy or not knowing what to do, given that the person carrying out such an act is at a far off location, leading to psychological trauma for the viewer. Unlike television, visual content on social media is difficult to regulate. Watching such content by people who are themselves suicidal or by impressionable teens may be especially detrimental, as it may lead to a phenomenon of “copycat suicides” where these acts may be replicated by others. Such behaviour must be reported to the social media portal, safety of the person carrying out such an act must be ensured by taking help from emergency services including the police or crisis intervention helplines and the person must be safeguarded as well as provided with psychological intervention by a mental health care expert.
Social media has indeed provided a platform for people to speak, and therefore it also provides a unique opportunity to talk about depression, as well as to spread awareness about suicide intervention as well as suicide prevention. When we talk about the power of media and suicide prevention, there is something called as the ‘Papageno effect’, which is an effect mass media can have in suicide prevention by presenting non-suicide alternates to crisis. (This protective effect has been termed the Papageno effect in honour of the character in Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute. When Papageno fears that he has lost his love, Papagena, he prepares to kill himself. But three boys save him at the last minute by reminding him of alternatives other than dying…). The same applies to social media as well. More stories need to come to light about people who resolved crisis by healthy coping mechanisms, overcame clinical depression with the right treatment and help. The same platform of social media can prove to be effective in spreading awareness about depression and suicide prevention.
This can help save lives.
*This article does not constitute medical advice and is for informational purposes only. If you believe that you or a person you know needs medical help, please contact a qualified psychiatrist or psychologist.