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A robust mental health system is the best tool for avoiding suicides

A month and a half ago, another suicide at the Costanera Center in Providencia reignited a public debate about suicide. It’s a complex issue that affects society as a whole. As psychologist Alemka Tomicic points out, a robust mental health system is the best tool for avoiding suicides.

Suicide is a serious public health problem for all countries. It has immediate life-ending effects on the individual and long-lasting effects on the individual’s surviving family members and friends and society at large. It is a particularly urgent issue for Chile. According to the report “Suicide mortality in the Americas,” presented by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), in 2019 Chile had the fourth highest suicide rate among South American countries.

Last Oct. 18, a man committed suicide at Costanera Center shopping center by throwing himself from the upper floors and falling on a woman, who was seriously injured. His was not the first suicide at the mall. 

Indeed, the mall has arguably become a “suicide destination” like so many around the world. As a result, some now critize the owner for not providing more security measures. 

But that begs the question: Instead of focusing on the symptoms (the suicide attempts) and worrying about making public spaces more safe for those who would seek to do themselves harm, shouldn’t we be focusing on the cause (the suicidal ideations that give rise to the attempts)?

Mental health professionals will argue the answer is yes. Prevention is the key instrument to protect individuals from suicide. Learning to recognize the warning signs, promoting prevention and resilience, and committing to social change are some crucial strategies suggested by the United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Suicide Prevention Resource for Action, which highlights strategies based on the best available evidence to help states and communities prevent suicide, in a country where the PAHO report above indicates the suicide rate was nearly double that of Chile’s in 2019 (i.e., 14.8 per 100,000 vs. 8.0 per 100,000 for Chile – both a far cry, however, from the “leader” in this unfortunate comparison, Guyana at 40.8 per 100,000).

Young people are especially vulnerable to suicidal ideations because of the life changes they are experiencing, as Carolina Altimir, a psychology professor with Alberto Hurtado University, explains; and,  while any teen might suffer situations that lead to thoughts of suicide, if the teen is a member of the LGBTQ community, he or she is seven times more at risk of suicidal behavior, according to a recent study, “Internalization of stigma in LGB people: Analysis of its impact on mental health.”

What is Chile doing?

Since 2013, Chile has adopted the National Plan for Suicide Prevention, which has been a significant effort, but “there are still issues to be improved and perhaps most importantly, to broaden the scope of monitoring and recording of suicides in the country,” explains the the Director of the UDP School of Psychology, Alemka Tomicic.

She emphasizes the importance of more specific inquiries regarding the trajectories of suicides: in short, how did the individuals reach that point?

Another problem is lack of funds. “I think considering that teen suicide and suicide in general are part and parcel of a larger cluster of mental health problems in Chile, which have been talked about a lot since the pandemic, and which have been very, very present, say, in the national debate – I think the most important thing is to increase the budget in mental health,” continues Tomicic.

In terms of public policies or particular initiatives, preventing adolescent suicide involves generating programs to promote self-esteem and self-efficacy, strengthening family and community ties, and building support networks among adolescents. This is closely linked to an active policy of promoting mental health (including the public budget allocated to it) and the rights of children and adolescents to grow up in a healthy physical and emotional environment.

Another factor is to acknowledge that LGBTQ youth are not inherently prone to suicide risk because of their sexual orientation or gender identity but are exposed to increased risk because of the way they are abused and stigmatized by society. Therefore, it is important to carry out public policy initiatives of acceptance and integration.

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