September 9-13: Philippine National Suicide Prevention Week

National Suicide Prevention Week in the Philippines is the second week of September. World Suicide Prevention Day falls within it (September 10). These are easily two of the most important “awareness events” that the Philippine Department of Health promotes each year… especially because suicide and its leading cause, depression, are still so little discussed in the country.

These two health issues are very closely linked. The sad truth is that most people still fail to comprehend the seriousness of depression here. There is a tendency to brush over it by saying “Hey, I get depressed too… but I’m not killing myself.”

But some do.

Or rather, many do. In the World Health Organization’s Suicide Report following its Comprehensive Mental Health Action Plan 2013-2020, it stated that almost 3,000 persons commit suicide daily. Around the world, the fatalities go well over 800,000 per year. Numbers this high can be hard to grasp, however.

So try this: count from 1 to 40.

By the time you have finished, another person will have killed himself.

And another will do it in the next 40 seconds that follow.

The Silence of Suicide in the Philippines

Even in the Philippines, a largely Catholic nation where suicide is condemned by religious and socio-cultural mores, the suicide rate can still be as high as 5 fatalities per day. As of 2015, suicide was the ninth leading cause of death for Filipinos in the 20-24 age bracket.

It does bear noting that we have some of the lowest suicide rates in our region, though. Again, this may be largely due to the Catholic Church’s opinion on suicide. However, this is far from a guarantee that this will persist into the future. Furthermore, the comparatively lower suicide rates should hardly cause Filipinos to start boasting yet. They still lead to us losing as many as 5 persons—persons you might know or whom you might consider family—every day.

Add to this that suicides are considered preventable. That still means we suffer 5 losses we could technically prevent, every day. And this is with the current data, which may actually be more conservative than the reality: due to the aforementioned stigma on suicide, we have to consider that suicides may be under-reported here out of a sense of shame.

The current Health Secretary Paulyn Ubial has drawn attention to the problem, noting the (ironic) invisibility of mental health issues along with their ubiquity. Under her aegis, the DOH has agreed to work with an NGO to establish a crisis helpline for depressed persons and would-be suicides.

The NGO involved is the Natasha Goulburn Foundation. It is dedicated to furthering mental health in the country in partnership with the government and several of the foremost educational institutions in the Philippines (AdMU, Miriam College, and UP). The Foundation’s and WHO’s helpline begins activities this month and is called Project Hopeline.

The fact that the helpline is being established only now does serve to highlight the lack of public resources for mental health in the country, though. Several mental health bills have already failed to pass in our legislature and while there is a National Mental Health Program, it has not really touched on the issue of depression as a common illness in the populace.

It is a common illness for Filipinos, though. The WHO lists the Philippines as the Southeast Asian Country with the worst depression rates. This means that in spite of the sociocultural stigma preventing higher suicide rates, we might actually have a larger pool of potential suicides than many neighbouring countries.

All of this suggests that the Hopeline Project may only be the first step down a very long road. Some argue that we also need a precise, well-articulated mental health bill to go with it. Others argue for a dedicated program or body coordinating efforts to prevent suicide in particular (something such as Australia’s National Suicide Prevention Strategy, for example). Others argue for all of these things together.

In the meantime, another 40 seconds passes by.

What Can We Do?

The first thing here is perhaps to keep an open mind. Shutting down information before it gets shared harms the situation, yet too many of us continue to shut it down. We often refuse to talk about mental and emotional health, even though both have strong impact on quality of life. We often refuse to listen to people who say they wish to die because we think to listen to them is to entertain the possibility of them acting on their statements.

Yet we have to be willing to learn more about suicide and why it happens before we can stop the things that make it happen. We have to be willing to learn that someone we know is contemplating suicide before we can prevent them from doing it.

Support is obviously vital. We can all personally support those we know who might be going through difficult times or who may be suffering from problems like depression. If psychiatric or psychological help in your area is available, you may also want to help them get to it. (Soon, you should be able to use the Patient App version of SeriousMD to look for such help in your area.)

Finally, you can help to spread awareness about suicide prevention by telling others about initiatives like the DOH and NGF’s Hopeline Project, the lobbying for a Mental Health Act (which you may support here, by the way), and by ensuring that productive discourse continues on the topic. The issue needs to be at the forefront of public awareness if solutions are to be developed to address it. Otherwise, the seconds shall continue to tick by and even more people may be lost in silence.