“We are all at the risk of developing suicidal thoughts,” says Sri Lanka Sumithrayo - Mel Medura Executive Consultant and Rajarata University Applied Sciences Lecturer in Health Promotion
– Dr. Manoj Fernando. –
Following the suicide of a teen from Kurunegala few weeks ago, several other suicides and suicide attempts of teens were reported from various parts of the country. Although it is difficult to say whether the incidents were isolated occurrences or results of a chain of causation triggered by media reports on the Kurunegala story, the incident has once again been an important eye-opener on how to deal with the teen psyche and suicidal tendencies.
"Superficial factors can be a loss in an individual’s personal or professional sphere. But they alone do not result in suicides"
The situation has not been made any easier through the developments in popular social media such as Facebook and Twitter that promote content, which glorifies self-harm and is available at the tip of anyone’s fingertips. The images circulated among the young through these social media sites, mostly in black and white – promoting ideas of ‘beautiful suffering’ and ‘lovely deaths’ have managed to distort ideas of the negative imagery of suicides.
“We are all at the risk of developing suicidal thoughts,” says Sri Lanka Sumithrayo - Mel Medura Executive Consultant and Rajarata University Applied Sciences Lecturer in Health Promotion – Dr. Manoj Fernando. “But not everyone who develops suicidal thoughts would put their thoughts into action. Therefore it is important to remember that suicides are not results of simply a loss or distressing experience in an individual’s life,” he says.
A result of a combination of factors
While it is impossible at present to pinpoint a particular age-range that is vulnerable to suicides, Dr. Fernando also adds that they are results of a combination of superficial as well as in-depth factors.
“As I mentioned earlier, superficial factors can be a loss in an individual’s personal or professional sphere. But they alone do not result in suicides. There are other in-depth factors that would further influence suicidal tendencies to which include biological, psychological and social factors,” he explains.
While a history or an ongoing psychiatric disease such as schizophrenia or depression can be the biological factor, he says that psychological factors can be the influences of an individual’s surroundings – including his/her familial background, peer groups and interests.
"A history of suicidal attempts and need to remain isolated, are the most commonly observed symptoms"
“It has been revealed through research that 40% of suicides in Sri Lanka are results of depression or schizophrenia. But it should not be misunderstood into thinking that anyone with a psychiatric illness has a tendency to commit suicide,” he adds. Dr. Fernando also says personality traits of an individual can also drive one into inflicting harm upon oneself.
“For example, if the person has weak coping skills, low self-esteem – such character traits could betray them into thinking that suicide is the answer to their issues. The weaknesses in personalities therefore also should not be considered lightly,” he says.
He also points to a range of other social factors that have come into play including living conditions, and adds that particular districts and areas have been identified as more suicide-prone areas. “They are the results of cultures dominant in the areas in question and the values they have placed upon suicidal behaviour,” says Dr. Fernando, adding that there are several other contributing factors that influence an individual to act out self-harming thoughts such as reports of suicides on popular media.
“We live in a day and age where a particular suicide act might be glamourised in order to attract readers, there might be reports that carry detailed information of how the act was carried out. There has been a change in the attitudes from ‘Let’s not discuss it’ to methods of self-harm and other material that encourage such actions being openly available on the internet,” he said.
He also said other factors such as the accessibility and availability of toxic and other harmful substances can also contribute to suicides,” he added.
Diagnosis can be tough
Dr. Fernando says diagnosis of suicide attempts in individuals of any age, simply by association or observation can be quite tough. “Unless the individual is receiving psychiatric treatment and a doctor diagnoses such behaviour it can be tough to predict it,” he says. But he adds there are two main characteristics that would be displayed by an individual prone to strong suicidal thoughts.
A history of suicidal attempts and need to remain isolated, he says, are the most commonly observed symptoms. “These can be identified as a ‘risk situation’ and it is vital that such developments or behaviour is not allowed to continue.”
Moreover, he adds that diagnosis in teenagers in particular can be particularly tough due to characteristics inherent with that age due to hormonal and physical changes. “Teenagers anyway tend to spend time alone when they are home, they limit interaction with parents, and can be very emotional and impulsive. That is why it is important for the parents to keep a close eye on their young children, their interests and activities, while being careful not to impose on them too much because if you keep a close eye, it would be easy to observe any behavioural changes in the child,” he adds.
Measures to tackle suicides
“Like I mentioned earlier, a loss or disappointment alone does not result in a suicide and most of these misfortunes can be avoided if minute changes are made in the ways to approach situations concerning teenagers,” Dr. Fernando says.
He places significant importance on academic courses preparing youth not simply to excel academically, but also to develop oneself to be emotionally strong.
“The education system in Sri Lanka is still at a stage where the students are encouraged to gear themselves towards goal-oriented ends. There is very little scope for character development or even if certain such aspects were highlighted, their practical applicability is limited,” he says.
Since teenagers are vulnerable age groups who tend to make rash, impulsive decisions he said it is also important for the parents and teachers to approach their issues cautiously and carefully.
“Particularly the academic staff in schools should be more trained into handling issues of teenage students. Without simply conforming to traditional methods of instilling discipline, it is important to change the approaches into advising and disciplining students,” he says.
Dr. Fernando said research has revealed that close to 60% of teachers still believed that physical violence was the accepted method to instill discipline among students. “Most teachers always tend to compare students of the present-day with their school years. They resort to corporal punishment or humiliating a student before others as the right course of action to prevent a student from committing a mistake. But it is important to always remember that children in the present-day are influenced by various factors other than their family or friends so their reactions to the punishments are not going to be the same.”
Does this mean that teachers and parents can no longer reprimand the children in fear of their retaliations towards the action? “No, but it is important to ensure that you reprimand the child in reflection of the situation at hand,” Dr. Fernando adds. He stresses on the importance of teachers as well as parents, being educated on reflective actions when addressing issues concerning their teenage children. “It is always important to learn how to address these issues if the parents or teachers aren’t aware. Unlike popular belief, there is something called ‘right parenting’ and it is only a matter of adjusting your attitude to learn it,” Dr. Manoj added.
He also highlighted the importance of having qualified counsellors in schools. “This is one of the biggest issues in schools. By qualification I don’t only mean academic qualifications but it is important for the individuals to be empathetic, confidential and good listeners. So it’s important even when selecting officials and training them that careful attention is paid to whether or not the chosen individual can handle the responsibility well and could give their best to the task.”
(Pix by Kithsiri de Mel)
Dr. Manoj Fernando can be reached at [email protected]