World Suicide Prevention Day: Covid-19, lockdown led to an increase in calls to SA's helplines - Sadag

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  • Not everyone who is depressed commits suicide, an expert has told News24.
  • Covid-19 and lockdown may have been contributors to people feeling suicidal. 
  • Experts urge people to reach out to their friends and families. 

With 10 September being World Suicide Prevention Day, the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) says it has seen a huge increase in the number of calls to its helpline since the start of the Covid-19 lockdown. 

The day is observed to raise awareness about suicide. 

According to the organisation, the majority of the callers are female - either calling for themselves or family members needing help. 

Sadag says it has received 55 000 calls to the suicide helpline since January 2020, with many people not aware of how they can get help or where they can go. 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that over 800 000 people take their own life each year, which is one person every 40 seconds. 

According to the University of Johannesburg's director for the Centre for Psychological Services and Career Development, Professor Alban Burke, the notion that "depressed" people often commit suicide is not 100% correct. 

Burke says not everyone commits suicide because of depression. 

"Suicide is a system or is a consequence of depression, but it's not the only cause of suicide. I think one of the biggest problems with Covid-19 and the lockdown [is] people have time to think and reflect. And I think, in this time, when you have time to reflect, people tend to think of all their failures and mistakes, and guilt and other things come up.

"Being isolated, not having a lot of people around you to share these kinds of things, I think the problem becomes bigger in your head, and then it reaches a critical point, which may then result in suicide," Burke told News24.

He added that the consequences of Covid-19 - financial constraints, unemployment and interpersonal problems - have contributed to people feeling hopeless.

Sadag has urged South Africans to work together to prevent suicide, saying if more people became aware of the warning signs of suicide and how they could get help, the high numbers could be reduced.

"Suicide is still a very taboo topic in our society - no one wants to talk about it, no one knows how to talk about it, and parents don't want to talk to their children about it - in case it 'plants ideas'.

"However, suicide is a very real issue in South Africa, and we can see it by the increasing number of calls we are receiving every day to the suicide helpline from people all over the country," Sadag operations director Cassey Chambers says.

SA Depression and Anxiety Group's infographic on World Suicide Prevention Day.

The organisation says possible warning signs of suicide include, among others, talking about ending your life, dying or suicide, and having a strong wish to die or preoccupation with death and dying.

Predictable and unpredictable suicide

Burke said suicide could be categorised as predictable and unpredictable.

"Predictable is where the way people display symptoms, you would notice the person starting to withdraw, the person is not sharing anything, there is a lack of enjoyment in previous things they used to enjoy. You see a person gradually deteriorating and slipping into a very hopeless and depressed kind of sense.

"Then, there is the unpredictable one when people, at the spur of the moment, they are busy with something and then they decide that it's just too much and, almost impulsively, they attempt or commit suicide." 

Seek help

Burke said it is important for people to reach out and listen to others - without being judgemental - to reduce the scourge of suicides. 

Team leader at UJ's Psychological Services and Disability Unit, Leila Abdool Gafoor, added that depression and anxiety were on the rise due to the pandemic. 

She advised people, who were seeing symptoms of depression, to reach out for help to their families, friends and professionals. 

"Sometimes, a session or two really helps to get a perspective on life again. There are a lot of people that are feeling alone at this time, and it is important to reach out to get support."

Anyone who needs help can phone the Suicide Prevention Helpline on 0800 567 567.

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