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Reach out and save lives

Written by Koen Smets (7 Sep 2015)

804,000 people. More than the population of Leeds. More than 1,500 fully loaded Boeing 747s.

That is the number of people that died worldwide as a result of suicide in 2012, according to the World Health Organization report, "Preventing Suicide: A Global Imperative". It is the second leading cause of death in 15-29 year-olds.

These are shocking figures. While the conditions that lead to suicidal behaviour can vary greatly, it is not hard to see why raising awareness is so important. That is what World Suicide Prevention Day (WSPD), an initiative of the International Association for Suicide Prevention that has been taking place on 10 September since 2003, is aiming to do.

This year its theme, "Preventing suicide: reaching out and saving lives", urges all of us to be more aware of the people around us who may be at risk of suicide, and of the people who have been bereaved by suicide.

Many of us will, at least once in our lives, experience the suicide of someone we know. For me, it happened when I was barely 13 years old. Our neighbours had a son of about 17, a guy with a motorbike, and a bedroom in the basement with coloured spotlights that could be seen flickering to the rhythm of a loud record player. I wasn't particularly close to him, but we always said hello to each other, and occasionally exchanged a few words. He was just a nice guy.

Nothing prepared us for the fact that, one autumn morning, his mother found he had hanged himself in his basement bedroom.

Suicidal behaviour often seems to be noticeable just before, or mostly after, the tragic event itself. This may lead us to believe that suicide prevention is what you do when someone stands on top of a multi-storey car park ready to jump, or when someone has already taken a bottle of diazepam.

Yet the path to suicide is a long one: many people who end up attempting suicide have long been suffering with psychological problems. And that means prevention should start way earlier than when people are outwardly suicidal. There is much that can be done to stop vulnerable people going down that path – there is much that all of us can do, not just the professionals or the authorities.

The WSPD brochure's suggestions are simple and clear: "Isolation increases the risk of suicide, and, conversely, having strong social connections is protective against it, so being there for someone who has become disconnected can be life-saving." Showing concern for someone who seems distressed in one way or another, asking them whether they are OK, listening to what they have to say in a non-judgemental way, and letting them know you care, can all have a significant impact.

We should look after our friends and families, but we should also look after ourselves. Making sure we stay psychologically healthy is the best way of avoiding going down the dark path towards suicide. Check out the Five Ways to Wellbeing on this blog, and if you notice that your feelings of for example anxiety, low mood or stress are getting more intense or more frequent, consider taking action. Don't hesitate to call the Samaritans (or the helpline in your country) if you feel troubled and don't know who to turn to.

Suicide is perhaps the most avoidable cause of death. The power to prevent it lies with every one of us.