Not talking about suicide does more harm than good: Suicide prevention groups

Shunning such discussions contributes to stigmatising people who have suicidal thoughts as the topic becomes taboo. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

SINGAPORE - More than six in 10 Singaporeans believe that talking about suicide may plant the idea in someone's head, a recent nationwide survey has found.

The Singapore Management University (SMU) survey also found that despite the bulk of its 2,960 respondents believing that suicide can be prevented, more than 60 per cent would not help someone with suicidal thoughts over concerns including the fear of making them worse and not knowing how to help to begin with.

The findings of the survey, which was conducted in January and February, were put up online on May 9.

Reluctance to speak about suicide in Singapore persists on an individual and institutional level, suicide prevention advocates and groups told The Straits Times, ultimately doing more harm than good.

Believing that talking about suicide will somehow cause a person to take his or her life is a common misconception, with some people fearful of someone "dying on them", said Ms Charlene Heng, deputy director of training and development at suicide prevention non-profit Samaritans of Singapore (SOS).

She said: "But the opposite is true for our clients. By checking for suicidal thoughts, you are creating a safe space to surface what is already on the suicidal person's mind and letting him or her experience emotional relief by being able to talk about their troubles."

Research has also shown that asking people about suicide does not lead to a statistically significant increase in suicidal thoughts, she said, citing 13 papers published between 2001 and 2013.

Many still prefer to avoid the topic, including organisations that invite SOS to conduct talks.

Said Ms Heng: "Whenever we are invited for talks and workshops in different places such as corporations and schools, there is always an attempt to not be blatant about suicide and talk about mental health instead."

But shunning such discussions in turn contributes to stigmatising people who have suicidal thoughts as the topic becomes taboo, making the individual feel as though there is something wrong with them, or that they are "being weak" or "attention-seeking", she added.

Dr Joseph Leong, a board member of charity Caring For Life with 22 years of experience as a psychiatrist, said having suicidal thoughts is common in every population and occurs even when one does not have mental health issues.

He said: "During health screening, for example, it's very common for medical students to hear the elderly say that there is no meaning to life.

"This doesn't mean that they will commit suicide but brushing it aside might increase the risk of suicide because they don't feel that they have been listened to."

According to a study published in 2019, only 25 per cent of respondents admitted to hospital in Singapore for attempting suicide were diagnosed with mental illness, he noted.

Dr Leong said: "Having suicidal thoughts is more related to stress and poor social, emotional, psychological health. By helping persons with suicidal ideation, we can reduce attempts, improve mental health and prevent mental illness."

Not talking about suicide also affects families who have lost their children to it, said Ms Valerie Lim, co-founder of the PleaseStay movement, an advocacy group on youth suicide prevention comprising mothers whose children had died by suicide.

She said: "One of the worst things parents in our group have faced after they have been bereaved, is that people avoid them because they don't know what to say, how to talk - they dare not ask anything... and then you also have the other extreme, people asking too many questions before the parents are ready (to talk about what happened).

"So the rule of thumb is to be present, compassionate, and to take your cue from the person if they want to share as much or as little as they feel ready to share."

While Singapore has taken positive steps towards reducing the stigma against suicide by decriminalising the act in 2020, many obstacles remain for intervening and preventing suicide in the Republic, in part due to the absence of a national strategy to tackle the issue, resource-strapped social workers and suicide prevention groups said.

Barriers include limited knowledge in the community on how to deal with suicide and not knowing which segments in the community efforts should target.

Such gaps in knowledge, experienced by SMU principal lecturer of statistics Rosie Ching, who lost three people to suicide, led her to conduct the nationwide survey.

She said: "I was never taught about suicide in school, the only mention I recall was in junior college when a teacher talked about her classmate who killed himself shortly after his appearance had changed and he began to smell such that no one wanted to go near him."

She added that the sense she and her fellow students got was that the teacher spoke of him as if he was expected to deal with his problem.

For concerted change in how Singapore society deals with suicide, there needs to be a national suicide prevention strategy to ensure continuity of care across all segments for those who have attempted suicide or harmed themselves, said former Nominated MP Anthea Ong, citing countries such as the United States that already have such strategies in place.

She said: "Without dedicated resources and regulatory teeth such as having a mental health office under the Prime Minister's Office to coordinate across ministries and agencies, we continue to leave preventing these deaths to chance and ad hoc efforts."

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