Lebanon rings alarm bells with record-high number of suicides
BEIRUT: In the past five months alone, 100 suicides have been recorded in Lebanon, surpassing the highest-recorded number of suicides since 2009, a year when 112 cases were documented.
On average, one person dies by suicide every three days and there is one attempted suicide every six hours in Lebanon, according to a recent report by the Internal Security Forces.
The reported increase in suicides raises alarm bells among medical professionals and those working in government-led mental health programs, and highlights the need to raise awareness and tackle the enduring social stigma that surrounds seeking psychiatric support.
Initiatives reached a national level in September 2017, when the Health Ministry and Beirut-based NGO Embrace Fund established the firstever helpline for suicide prevention in Lebanon. “The No. 1 reason for suicide is untreated mental illness,” project coordinator at Embrace Sanaa Mugharbil told The Daily Star.
“Due to the stigma and taboos surrounding mental illness in Lebanon, a lot of people either do not know they have a mental illness [due to lack of information regarding the signs] and/or they do not seek mental healthcare due to the shame associated with it,” Mugharbil said.
“Embrace strongly believes and does its best to increase awareness about mental illness and its warning signs. Once more awareness is spread and people see mental illness is just the same as any physical illness, then the stigma can slowly be removed.”
Embrace currently has 55 volunteers as helpline operators. While Mugharbil noted the operators are not mental health professionals, she said all of them “are required to attend a three-day intensive training on suicide risk assessment and crisis intervention where they learn the skills needed to answer and de-escalate suicide and distress calls.” The helpline, reached by dialing 1564, operates everyday, noon until 2 a.m.
According to Embrace, suicide helplines decrease the risk of suicide by 36 to 57 percent.
A patient guidance publication issued by the American University of Beirut Medical Center gives warning signs for those with suicidal thoughts. By listing them, the publication’s aim is to create awareness with the aim of minimizing the overall risk. Warning signs include loss of hope, desiring death, intolerable pain, use of alcohol and drugs, withdrawal from daily activities, severe mood swings and loss of property.
But after the spike in suiciderelated deaths this year, experts and organizations in the country are scrambling to understand the causes behind suicides, aside from mental illness. “The issue in Lebanon is that there is no reliable data of the suicide victims,” Mugharbil said.
The statistics released by the ISF show 16 percent of students aged 1214 had seriously considered committing suicide and men are twice as likely to die from suicide in Lebanon.
But the ISF numbers are believed to be underreported – as social, religious, and cultural taboos prevent accurate reporting of suicide cases, Mugharbil said. The ISF does not record sufficient demographic information about the individual, she says, it only records the sex, nationality, and location of the individual – age, for instance, is not recorded.
Due to the limited and unreliable data, any educated and researchbased claims about the similarities of the victims cannot be made.
Run by Embrace, the hotline branch works in collaboration with the National Mental Health Program and is a component of the national suicide prevention framework in line with the national health strategy for Lebanon 2015-20.
The national health strategy aims for a sustainable mental health system in the country that guarantees the provision of, and universal access to, high-quality mental services. Suicide prevention and decreased suicide rates is one of the targeted outcomes of this strategy.
The National Mental Health Program was launched in May 2014 within the Health Ministry, with the support of the World Health Organization, UNICEF and International Medical Corps.
The objectives behind NMHP also revolve around reforming mental healthcare in Lebanon and providing services beyond medical treatment at the community level.