Le­banon rings alarm bells with record-high num­ber of sui­cides

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - LEBANON - By An­to­nia Wil­liams-An­nun­zi­ata

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.

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