Paradise in tragedy | Sunday Observer

Paradise in tragedy

Sri Lanka , since time immemorial, often referred to as the pearl of the Indian Ocean has till recently been more in the limelight for suicide, ethnic disharmony, and violent crimes. Despite this, visitors to the paradise isle see us as a happy people, and are little aware of the underlying tragedy of suicide that pervades the entire country.

According to a recent WHO report, on an average 900,000 people kill themselves worldwide each year. In an earlier report they estimated that of the 1.5 to 2 million people who lose their lives to violence each year, 50% died by suicide alone. More people have died by suicide in Sri Lanka, within the past 30 years than those the separatist war has killed in the same period of time. Suicide is not only a personal tragedy, but also affects the family, the community, and the country as a whole. Again, from a WHO report, suicide was the 4th leading cause of death worldwide among those aged 15 to 44, the most productive years. Ten to twenty times that number fail in their attempts to die, and this has been found to be among some of the leading causes of ill health and disability.

Suicide and self-harm are perhaps one of the most preventable causes of death and ill health in this world, where concerned members of society even though untrained in the field of suicide prevention can have a major role to play in saving the lives of suicide prone people. In stark contrast to the outpouring of goodwill towards the survivors of natural disasters is the general apathy towards those who choose to kill themselves

On an average, over 3,000 people kill themselves each year in Sri Lanka. Suicide is often not a wish to die, but a final desperate attempt, all else having failed, to draw the attention of those around him or her that they can no longer face or cope with life as it is for them. It is their final statement on the quality of life as they experience it. Many may have suffered for long periods of time, from feelings of being misunderstood, and misjudged, that nobody really cared about them or cared if they lived or died. Some may have suffered from feelings of extreme loneliness and isolation and felt they had no-one to turn to who would accept and understand them. The tragedy is that Suicide is Preventable.

Suicide is no respecter of class, caste, economic status, ethnicity, religion, or the position one occupies in society. It strikes wherever pain of mind exceeds the individual’s ability to cope with it. Those who have suffered a significant loss or several significant losses in their lives are at risk of suicide. Suicide is also a grave risk factor in those who suffer from mental illness, and in those dependent on drugs.

Suicides in Sri Lanka (1995 – 2016)

Sri Lanka has had very high rates of suicide for the past 20 years. With stringent laws preventing highly toxic agro chemicals being imported into the country and improved medical management of Oleander and other toxic vegetable poisoning (the two commonest methods of suicide in the rural areas); There has been an appreciable reduction in deaths by suicide since the rates peaked in 1995. The rates have reduced by over 60%; from a high of 47 per 100,000 (8,519 suicides) in 1995, to 15 per 100,000 (3,025 suicides) in 2016. Unfortunately, there has been no corresponding reduction in the number of incidences of self-harm. Suicidal behaviour is a barometer of the mental health of a society and its emotional stability. With deaths by deliberate ingestion of agricultural poisons coming down, deaths by strangulation (hanging) is slowly rising. For the last four years hanging has been the commonest mode of suicide in Sri Lanka.

According to the most recent suicide statistics from the Sri Lanka Police, 3,025 people killed themselves in the country in 2016. Of this number 1,117 or 37% were unemployed, 862 or 28% were labourers and casual workers, 13% were agricultural, fisheries, forestry workers, 4% were students and only 1.5% were Professionals such as doctors, engineers and Accountants, and .4% Managerial, executive level workers. Judging from this it is no surprise that 75% of the suicides in the country still come from the depressed classes and rural areas.

The rural communities are largely agriculture based with the commonest method used in suicide, the ingestion of agricultural poisons, freely available to them.There appears to be a general apathy towards the depressed rural communities of the country. Unfortunately, they experience a permanent Tsunami, with no true recognition of their suffering by either the state, the people of the country or the outside world. They live and die in abject poverty and deprivation with little or no hope of seeing a better tomorrow.

It would be beneficial all round if people were more aware of how to recognize and help those who may be distressed, despairing and may even be considering suicide. If each one of us could help another fellow human being in emotional distress, and help them cope with their negative feelings the world will be a more stable and happier place for all to live in.Every human being and all living creatures respond to kindness and benevolent attention. A smile, a kind word costs nothing and does not take time, but may mean the difference to someone between wanting to die or giving life another chance.

Suicide Prevention should be everyone’s responsibility. All of us may not have the time to spare to be of practical and genuine help to others in distress but we could always help organizations such as Sri Lanka Sumithrayo dedicated to suicide prevention by enabling them provide their much needed services island-wide by volunteering to work with them or helping with funding, and sponsoring awareness raising programs and publicity material. There is a dire need for more volunteers willing to spare four hours a week to work with the lonely, depressed and despairing.

In the latter half of the 19th century Mrs Joan de Mel a Samaritan volunteer from England, married to a Sri Lankan Bishop and domiciled in Sri Lanka, was greatly perturbed by the number of attempted suicides, entering into the National Hospital in Colombo on a regular basis. Responding to an urgent request by a senior doctor in the hospital and encouraged by her husband, she, together with a few like-minded people, opened the first of the Sri Lanka Sumithrayo crisis intervention centres 43 years ago on June 14 1974 in Colombo. The volunteer based organization has now grown to 11 centres island-wide, and to an extensive rural program in the North Western and Southern Provinces.The primary objective of the Sri Lanka Sumithrayo Centres is crisis intervention and suicide prevention.

With modern technology at our fingertips and the unbelievable speed of communication and a world full of material temptations, the race faced by many human beings just to barely survive, or provide for their families or satisfy their ever increasing perceived needs, leaves no room for caring about others’ welfare.

If we find we have no time to help others ourselves could we not, at least put them in touch with one of the Sri Lanka Sumithrayo Centres situated island-wide? Services provided is confidential and free of charge.

The volunteers manning these crisis intervention Centres are specially trained to recognize and help those in emotional distress and in need of non-judgmental acceptance and understanding. The volunteers are trained to listen with empathy and understanding, for however long it takes, to help the distressed person to cope with their difficult negative feelings and come to terms with whatever is happening in their lives and see a way forward. Total confidentiality and anonymity are assured.

Please contact Sri Lanka Sumithrayo Head Office at 60/7, Horton Place, Colombo 7, Tel. 2682535, email – [email protected] for detailed information about the branch centres located in Kohuwela, Kandy, Bandarawela, Panadura, Mawanella, Matale, Kurunegala, Panduwasnuwara, Negombo, Jaffna and Lunugamvehera.

(The writer is winner of the IASP Erwin Ringel Service Award in 2007). 

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