More people die of suicide than from armed conflict

Speical Report

Counselling psychologist Dr Marie Murphy, who has been a suicide prevention trainer for 11 years, explains why people might find the start of a new year difficult.

At this time of year, more than any other, with thoughts of the year ahead and the future, we take stock of our lives and make plans.

But for some the thought of facing another year of pain and mental distress is so overwhelming that ending their lives is one of the choices they are considering.

In Scotland, two people every day end their lives by suicide and studies estimate that at least five per cent of the population will be thinking about suicide.

In fact, the choice is part of the human condition and is not a new phenomenon.

More people die by suicide than in road traffic accidents or in armed conflicts, according to the World Health Organisation, and yet it is a cause of death that we continue to surround with stigma and shame.

According to Breathing Space operations manager Stephen Anderson, people may call the NHS helpline less over Christmas but calls increase dramatically throughout January as the reality of a difficult year ahead sinks in.

Stephen said: “This might be the one time of year that people actually get invited somewhere, spend time with family, share a meal and feel connected to others.

“It is when the festivities are over that people can become suffocated by loneliness. Over Christmas they can focus on the here and now, but as we move into the New Year, people can struggle when they are facing a future which seems hopeless.

“But there can be hope in a new year with the chance of a fresh start, renewal and rebirth. Breathing Space and other supports are there to help people to talk through their struggles and choices and help them see suicide is not their only option.”

The big question that is very difficult to answer is why people take their lives.

Research continues across the world to try to answer this question. No one can give a definitive answer, as suicide is very individual, but there are themes of the kinds of situations and events that lead people to think about suicide.

Extreme emotional pain which becomes unbearable is a factor. This could arise from events such as bereavement, job loss, relationship breakdown, bullying – anything that contributes to a loss of role or identity.

Often people can experience a number of stressful events one after the other and they simply become overwhelmed.

People thinking about suicide will experience feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, failure, shame, guilt or being trapped and disconnected from everyone around them.

Using coping mechanisms such as alcohol and drugs can help in the short term, but they often leave people feeling worse and increase feelings of shame and failure.

Tony McLaren, Breathing Space national co-ordinator, said: “The winter months can be a challenging time of year for some, with issues such as debt, relationship breakdowns and loneliness coming to the fore.

“It is always better to talk about what you are going through, particularly if you are struggling with suicidal thoughts. Our experienced advisers at Breathing Space are there to listen and offer advice.”

Scotland continues to be a leader in the field of suicide research. Professor Rory O’Conner, of the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Health and Wellbeing, was recently elected as the president of the International Academy of Suicide Research.

His latest research, along with Professor Matthew Nock – published in The Lancet last year –highlights the many complex psychological and social factors that lead a person to think about suicide.

He stated: “Most people struggling with suicidal thoughts and behaviours do not receive treatment.

“Some evidence suggests that different forms of cognitive and behavioural therapies can reduce the risk of suicide reattempt but hardly any evidence about factors that protect against suicide is available.

“The development of innovative psychological and psychosocial treatments needs urgent attention.”

The Scottish Government’s strategy for reducing suicide, Choose Life, has been in place for 12 years and serves as a benchmark for countries around the world working to reduce suicide.

Its main focus has been on reducing stigma and training professionals and community members how to intervene when people are considering suicide.

But although many people across Scotland struggle with thoughts of suicide, there is hope.

Suicide rates in Scotland have dropped by 18 per cent in the past 10 years and the Scottish government remains committed to reducing this further.

There are many organisations which provide support and people are finally beginning to break the taboo surrounding suicide and are becoming more willing to talk about it.