Senior reporter MARY JOHNS spoke to program co-ordinator Margaret Logavatu.
Times: Why do people commit suicide?
Ms Logavatu: Suicide exists in every society. Some of the causes of suicide are common despite different cultures, while in many societies suicide can have very specific cultural meanings and interpretations. In Fiji it is often a little known fact that suicide is one of our most common causes of death. In any given year in Fiji, more people will take their own lives than will be involved in road accidents (in 2003, 73 fatalities occurred on Fiji's roads versus 102 people who committed suicide).
While it is difficult to generalise why an individual chooses to commit or attempt suicide, one common cause can be addressed. That is, the majority of such people are suffering from severe depression. Depression is a common and treatable mental illness that on average affects one in five people. This makes suicide prevention and mental health awareness so important because if we can catch mental illness early on and intervene and treat the illness, we can reduce the incidence of suicide.
Depression can often result from stress, among all age groups. Stress and anxiety can often result from study, work, employment difficulties, and after traumatic events, such as the loss of a loved one, an accident and the end of a relationship. It is imperative that people receive adequate support during times of stress so they can employ effective coping strategies to deal with a difficult period, and avoid severe depression that can lead to events such as suicide.
Times: What are the telltale signs?
Logavatu: Predicting suicide is difficult. Changes in behaviour outside the person's normal range of behaviour and which do not make sense to those close to them may be a warning sign. Other warning signs may include:
- Loss of interest in previously pleasurable activities;
- Giving away prized possessions;
- Problem behaviour and substance misuse;
- Apathy in dress and appearance, or a sudden change in weight;
- Sudden and striking personality changes;
- Withdrawal from friends and social activities; and
- Increased 'accident proneness' and self-harming behaviours.
It is also important to note that all suicide threats should be taken seriously.
Times: Would you recommend people with these symptoms see a psychologist?
Logavatu: It is important for anyone going through a difficult time to be able to draw on adequate social support to help them through their situation. For many of us, that social support or safety net exists in various forms. It can take the form of close family members, friends, sports team coach, priest, teacher, or yes, even a psychologist. The primary issues here are ensuring people are provided with an environment conducive to effective communication and that everyone has someone they can trust to talk them through their intricate circumstance.
Times: How can we tackle these symptoms?
Logavatu: Suicide is often linked to problems of mental illness and mental illness is aggravated by social and physical isolation. In all societies it has been found that in times of change, migration and isolation, suicide rates increase and people's mental health suffers.
The important link to note here is that when people become disconnected they are more likely to suffer from a mental illness and struggle to cope with difficult circumstances.
As a society we can be aware of the issue of suicide and seek to connect people to the appropriate services and support they require to get through difficult times and build their personal resilience. Mental illness is like any other illness in that it is treatable. If you were to break an arm would you just sit at home and wait for it to heal? No, you would seek medical treatment immediately. A person showing signs of mental ill health can still live a productive life if given access to proper treatment and support.
Times: The suicide rate is particularly high among youths. Are parents not spending enough time with their children?
Logavatu: As parents or caregivers not only is it important to be able to communicate openly and honestly with your young ones, but you must also be able to provide them with an environment to do the same with you.
Unfortunately our cultural values dictate that children and youth are meant to be seen and not heard.
This makes it especially difficult for the young person who may bear witness to drug abuse in their school, violence in their home or sexual promiscuity among their peers and need an outlet to express how these things may be impacting them.
Meaningful communication between elders and young people is key, it's vital to their mental wellbeing and how they make sense of the world they live in.
We must also take the initiative to remain clued in about current issues that may have the potential to affect our young people.
Moreover, everyone has a part to play in the fight to address suicide. While the primary foundation should be the home, we must remember that the young person is part of a wider community or network.
Teachers, peers, the media (in terms of responsible reporting) and even the young people themselves need to take responsibility and ownership over this issue as it has the potential to affect many lives.
Times: What is your advice to families, especially parents?
Logavatu: As much as possible try not to place your children or young people in a situation where they may have to compete with your commitment to your church, vanua, or work. While I respectfully acknowledge that these are extremely important components of our way of life, it shouldn't be at the expense of our children and young people.
Times: Are you aware of the statistics on suicide for the first half of the year and if so, what kind of trend do they indicate?
Logavatu: We do not expect to know the suicide rates for this year until the Ministry of Health has had a chance to collate and distribute them sometime next year. We do know however, that the suicide rates over the last couple of years have decreased by some 12-15 per cent.
While this may be due to a number of factors like increased awareness on the issue, or even inaccurate recording, the fact remains that Fiji's suicide rates are still too high for a country with our population size.
Times: How does World Suicide Day help?
Logavatu: We are using this day as a platform to raise awareness on suicide and its connection to mental health, as well as pay our respects to those lives we have lost to suicide in the past.
In preparation for this event, we have made appearances on radio talk back shows in both the English and vernacular languages to talk about our local situation on suicide.
We have also started using our networks to spread the word on this event and as of Friday, September 7, my team have been both overwhelmed and humbled by the show of support and encouragement for this initiative.
I have heard that an entire school grade is interested in attending because they recently lost a friend to suicide.
This goes back to the importance of providing a safe space conducive for young people to come together and express their feelings about something that is affecting them, something that is unfortunately done too often in our society.
Times: What sort of work is planned for after September 10?
Logavatu: Partners in Community Development Fiji (PCDF) will continue to work with government and non-government actors to raise awareness on issues like suicide, mental health, and mental illness primarily at the community level.
PCDF is working at supporting partners such as the Ministry of Health, St Giles Psychiatric Hospital and Marie Stopes International in their extraordinary efforts to raise awareness in isolated rural areas like Nadarivatu, parts of Naitasiri, and the Lau group to name a few.
It is very rewarding to hear of the impact these programs have on our people in the rural areas as they learn about issues such as suicide and mental health.
We are also concerned about the increasing reports of depression among our children, some as young as 14 years old.
PCDF, along with its partner stakeholders, is planning to extend its outreach program into schools in order to address this very important issue.
These plus many other initiatives are what will continue post September 10.
Adapted from Fijitimes Online