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Suicide prevention: 'We're still there for each other'

Rebecca Staudenmaier
September 10, 2020

For those with mental health issues, the COVID-19 pandemic has been especially challenging. On this year's World Suicide Prevention Day, experts urge that physical distancing doesn't mean we're socially cut off.

anxious looking woman with face mask riding on a train in the dark
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Weber/Eibner

Every year, around 800,000 people around the world die by suicide. Some are from large extended families, others are so lonely that they feel they have no one to turn to. Every death affects an average of 135 additional people — amounting to 108 million people who are impacted every year.

The situation can vary greatly by country. Although the rates have dropped in Germany in recent decades, suicides account for more fatalities than road accidents and illegal drug use combined. 

Read more: Trick your brain to stop worrying and overthinking

September 10th marks World Suicide Prevention Day (WSPD), an annual global event organized by the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP) and co-sponsored by the World Health Organization. It's a day of remembrance to mourn those who have passed and also serves as a global call to check in with one another.

And this year possible effects of the coronavirus pandemic on suicide rates are a topic of debate among experts.

Measuring the impact of COVID-19

This year's commemorative and educational activities are taking place under the motto "Working Together to Prevent Suicide" — and adapting the program to the anti-coronavirus measures has been a challenge.

"We can't physically touch each other at the moment, but it is all the more important to interpret the motto symbolically — that we are actually still there for each other and take care of others," Schneider said.

Experts agree that the effects of the coronavirus pandemic can heighten proven risk factors for self-harm, including isolation, anxiety, economic loss, and increased alcohol and drug consumption.

At the same time, researchers have cautioned against drawing conclusions about the pandemic's impact on suicide rates, saying the data is just not there yet.

"We still do not know a lot about what the impact of the pandemic is on suicides. But of course, there's a strong impact on suicide prevention, particularly when it comes to service delivery," Thomas Niederkrotenthaler, a suicide researcher and treasurer at the IASP told DW.

Read more: Coronavirus triggers mental health crisis in India

Pandemic depression

Niederkrotenthaler and dozens of fellow researchers are currently helping to coordinate and compile studies around the globe on suicide prevention during the COVID-19 pandemic. The hope is to come up with policies that will help people weather this pandemic and the ones to come.

"I think it's important to note that we do not necessarily have to reinvent the wheel because of the pandemic, but we really need to see how we can translate what we know from before the pandemic to the situation we are in," he said.

Seeking help online 

Although coronavirus restrictions closed doors, they also opened digital windows. 

Crisis care hotlines and local groups expanded their reach to offer online services, group sessions were arranged via video chats and therapists could still meet with their patients — albeit behind computer screens.

"This is a very unique crisis, also a very unique pandemic, because, for the first time, we actually have the opportunity to use online services," according to Niederkrotenthaler, who also heads the suicide research unit at the Medical University of Vienna.

Outcry over TikTok video

Where the internet can be a source of relief and comfort for those dealing with suicidal thoughts, experts also caution about the damage that some social media content can cause. 

The video-sharing app TikTok has come under fire in recent days after a video of an apparent suicide began circulating and later spread to other social media platforms.

TikTok, which is primarily used by younger users, has said it is working to remove the video, which was reportedly first posted on Facebook. Parents and schools have been issued warnings about the content, with reports of young social media users who felt traumatized after viewing it.

Similar videos have appeared on other sites, including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter — prompting calls for social media giants to take action against disturbing content.

Read more: Mental health problems a growing issue for European teens: WHO

'Help is possible'

There is no one cause for suicide. For those struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts, the message from experts is clear: you are not alone.

"It's important to offer contact and a relationship to the person who is affected and to maintain this contact," noted Barbara Schneider, who is also the head physician in the department for dependency-related illnesses at the LVR clinic in Cologne. "Also if you notice that it's not sufficient, or if you consider it to be insufficient, to arrange for further help."

Even in times of physical distancing, it's important to check in with people who may be struggling and to ask them directly about it.

"What people, in general, should absolutely know is that help is possible," she added.

If you are suffering from serious emotional strain or suicidal thoughts, do not hesitate to seek professional help. You can find information on where to find such help, no matter where you live in the world, at this website: https://www.befrienders.org/