Two days before World Suicide Prevention Day on Tuesday, the Taiwanese Society of Suicidology held a news conference, as it does every year, to raise awareness about the problem of suicides in Taiwan.
The group stressed that, while the number of deaths by suicide has fallen over the past 12 years, the number of attempts has been rising among teenagers and other young people.
While the group focused on bullying for this year’s survey, suicidal ideation is a complicated condition that is influenced by a multitude of factors. To effectively help people who might be having such thoughts, each of these factors must be addressed in prevention efforts and within society as a whole.
Young people today are living in an unexplored world of interpersonal relations. Although most people use platforms such as Instagram and YouTube, today’s teenagers are the first to grow up with them as a default means of connection.
There is considerable disagreement in the scientific community about whether social media can be blamed for many of the challenges facing young people, including depression and suicidal ideation, but it is undoubtedly a sea change in how people interact with others and therefore requires scrutiny.
Adolescence is a crucial developmental stage when people begin to form their identities and sense of place in the world. Research has shown that intimate and healthy social connection is vital during this time, but social media excels at flattening interaction. This could potentially feed into one major risk factor for suicide: a lack or loss of close connection to others.
However, banning youngsters from social media is not the answer, nor would it be very effective. A better approach would be for schools to offer counseling services to help them sort through their social media anxieties, in addition to media literacy classes to help them separate fact from fiction.
Another risk factor is “failure of effectiveness,” which might be felt after losing a job or failing to fulfill one’s role. For youngsters, their role is to do well in school, which in Taiwan often means performing well on tests. If a child is encouraged to view academic performance as a gauge of self-worth, it is no surprise that they might think that academic failure is a testament to their failure as a person.
The most effective way to address this issue is certainly not the easiest: It would require a shift in the education system away from traditional testing methods, as well as a cultural shift to value other skills as equal to academic skill.
A societal change is also needed in how people discuss and view mental health, which is too often either dismissed or stigmatized. What teenager would seek help if their peers and parents make fun of or shame them for wishing to see a counselor?
The Taiwan Suicide Prevention Center and the suicide prevention hotline are wonderful resources, but could go further. Last year, the highest percentage of suicides were in eastern and central Taiwan, with males outnumbering females by 2,551 deaths to 1,314 deaths, Ministry of Health and Welfare data showed.
However, a study of callers to the hotline from 2009 to 2011 found that males and people living outside of northern Taiwan were less likely to call, showing a need to put more effort into publicizing the hotline and reducing the stigma attached to seeking help.
Suicide is a sensitive and complicated issue that requires the same amount of sensitivity and complexity to address. This year’s survey should rightly raise some alarm bells, but it is also proof that prevention efforts work, and efforts should be continued to aid those most in need of help.
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