“Suicides take a high toll. Over 800,000 people die due to suicide every year and it is the second leading cause of death in 15-29-year-olds. There are indications that for each adult who died of suicide there may have been more than 20 others attempting suicide.” (WHO)
In more developed countries, such as the United States and the UK, inspiring stories about the lives of people who commit suicide are widely publicized, read, and mourned. But, I would posit that the majority of us have a myopic view of the mechanics that would drive suicide to the top of a list of the leading killers of teen girls. Worldwide, suicide bypassed maternal mortality, HIV/AIDS, road injuries, and diarrheal diseases. The global average for death by suicide is 11.73 (per 100,000 deaths) but, pulling that number to the top is that 27.92 per 100,000 women in southeast Asia die by suicide.
The development of a severely depressed mood does not occur in a vacuum, but rather it is a biopsychosocial problem. India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and more are classified as southeast Asia by the WHO, and these countries are notorious for cultures that oppress women. Also, these countries have dominantly patriarchal cultures, and thus women lack empowerment and financial resources to develop themselves as separate entities. Furthermore, child marriages are extremely common, which forces young women to give up educational prospects and more which would allow them to function independently. In a situation where a young girl has very little power and future prospects, one can see how she might choose the only escape she has within her grasp.
The loved ones left behind after someone they care for commits suicide, frequently wonder how they missed the signs and red flags that prelude suicide. Yet, too often the media simplifies what’s behind a person’s decision to take his/her own life. For women, it’s pared down to superficial comments about poor body image or romantic relationships, and ultimately it’s portrayed as a egocentric decision. In the moment, the person’s death is acutely mourned, but it’s still viewed as a shameful action and the discussion in families, among friends, and in society as a whole simply isn’t happening.
Individually, we know that mental disorders, such as schizophrenia, depression, previous suicide attempts, self-harm, and/or substance abuse are all significant risk factors for a successful suicide attempt. Yes, there may be certain genetic variables that place people at a higher risk for considering suicide, but as a society we have failed to prioritize mental well-being for girls and women.
Worldwide, there are still insurmountable barriers to accessing adequate mental health care—often due to rampant stigma against people, especially women, seeking help for mental health issues. How many times have you heard people refer to suicide as “selfish?” Culturally it’s often not acceptable for anyone, regardless of gender or age, to struggle with a mental illness, much less seek help for it. Financially, mental health is often not a priority in health insurance plans, much less for those with inadequate insurance or with a complete absence of health insurance. Furthermore, mental health treatment is an extraordinarily low priority for governments and lawmakers, which makes it a difficult system to fight. For those without treatment, mental illness can progress to a point where there seems to be no hope, and hopelessness and isolation breed suicidal ideations and plans.
So, we’re left with this dilemma where a crucial issue is treated lightly, and the structure of society is not conducive to women’s mental resilience. From a very young age, girls are placed under immense cultural and societal pressure to perform, be street-smart, book-smart, good girlfriends and wives, and then still show up perfectly primped for brunch. It’s time to acknowledge the mental burden women are dealt, and put in place the structures to encourage self-sufficiency and provide adequate mental health treatment. Furthermore, as much as it pains us all, it’s time we acknowledge the possibility that the women in your life might occasionally consider suicide when they’re feeling particularly hopeless. Ignoring suicide won’t make it disappear, but focusing our efforts to lower those tragic numbers will save lives.
World suicide prevention day is September 10th!
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
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