You are not alone: Commemorating World Suicide Prevention Day

Salonaz Sami, Saturday 11 Sep 2021

Marking the occasion, Ahram Online probes into suicide and mental health in Egypt


World Suicide Prevention Day (WSPD) is observed on 10 September to provide worldwide commitment and action to prevent suicides, with various activities held around the world since 2003.

The International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP) collaborates with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the World Federation for Mental Health (WFMH) to host World Suicide Prevention Day.

Although not widely celebrated or heard about, every year countries around the world hold awareness events to mark the occasion.

According to a WHO fact sheet published in June, more than 700,000 people take their lives every year, making suicide the fourth cause of death in the 15-29 age bracket.

The numbers are decreasing, however. A 2018 WHO report stated that approximately one million people worldwide committed suicide, recording almost one death every 40 seconds. The report indicated that suicide incidents in Egypt reached 3.799 or 0.68% of the total deaths, a ratio of three suicides per 100,000 people.

Depression is one of the leading reasons behind suicide. Others include financial hardships and failure to score high grades in exams or find a job.

In May, unable to bear the loss of his mother, a 21-year-old Egyptian man committed suicide by throwing himself in front of a train. The mother passed away a month prior to the incident after suffering from Covid-19. The young man didn't only lose his mother. A few days earlier, one of his best friends died. The two deaths left him with depression.

"If you don’t hear anything about me, then just pray for me and forgive me," the man wrote on his social media accounts.

"It is a state of low mood and aversion of activities that have a negative effect on one's feelings, thought and physical well-being that may lead to one's contemplating or attempting to commit suicide," explained therapist Sherine Abdel-Khalik.

However, "Egyptian society has come a long way from considering suicide as a taboo to accepting it as a mental illness that needs to be treated," Abdel-Khalik added.

Figures released in March 2017 by the General Secretariat of Mental Health showed that 516,000 people were admitted to mental hospitals across the country in 2016.

"However, religion maybe a restrain for many of those who are experiencing suicidal tendencies," noted Abdel-Khalik. Both Islam and Christianity categorically forbid suicide.

"And since suicide is generally regarded as sinful, both socially and religiously in our community, most of the cases are dismissed as accidental deaths by the deceased's relatives," she said, "because families don't want to live with the shame that usually comes with the idea that one of them took their own life."

This means that suicides and suicide attempts in Egypt are under-reported, according to Abdel-Khalik.

"The statistics available don’t reflect the reality or the magnitude of the massive problem."

According to a report issued by the Ministry of Health and Population, 30 percent of baccalaureate student suffer from psychological problems and 21.5 percent of them consider suicide.

"Suicide among young adults and high school students is a common thing," explained Kenzy Atef, a sociologist and behaviour therapist.

"Over the past months we have witnessed many suicide cases following the release of high school results," explained Atef.

"They are often attributed to pressures to achieve high academic results in their final exams," she added.

Suicide is a serious public health problem, but it is preventable with timely, evidence-based and often low-cost interventions, according to the WHO. For national responses to be effective, however, a comprehensive suicide prevention strategy is needed.

"In the past few years, the government has been focusing on suicide and mental health issues," noted Atef.

Many online campaigns and hot numbers, both private and government-sponsored, have been attempting to address the problem, but the one number that stands out is that of the Ministry of Health and Population.

Upon dialling 02 2081 6831 or 080 0888 0700, an employee asks the caller about the mental health issue and directs them to the nearest mental health facility that is most suitable for the case.

"The most important thing when it comes to mental illness is that the patients feel they are not alone and that they are getting the help and support they need," said Atef.

There are also many online initiatives of varying costs and types, such as Takestep and Shezlong. The two websites enable users to book and pay for their online or phone sessions anonymously. 

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