September 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day. Suicide prevention is a global challenge. Suicide ranks consistently among the 20 highest causes of death globally across all age groups. Locally, suicide is among the 10 leading causes of death and it is the leading cause among people aged 10 to 29.
The Covid-19 pandemic has had a considerable impact on people’s emotional well-being, especially the young, elderly and unemployed. Mental health has become a global priority, with the pandemic disproportionally affecting ethnic minorities and low-income earners.
This year’s theme, “Creating Hope Through Action”, is well considered and timely in its call to urge people towards action and to make a difference. We should all feel equipped, supported and inspired to act confidently as we try to prevent deaths by suicide in our communities and around the world. The International Association of Suicide Prevention hopes to “create a social movement of preventative action”. Within this, we need everyone’s involvement.
Locally, the overall suicide rate in 2021 was 12.3 per 100,000 people, which was slightly higher than the rate of 12.1 per 100,000 in 2020. To enable a valid comparison among different regions, suicide rates are standardised and adjusted according to the age structure of the world population.
As ageing in Hong Kong is more severe than in some other places, our age-standardised suicide rate after adjustment is estimated at 9.0 for 2021, which is consistent with the global average. However, we have identified two subgroups that need special attention: older adults and young people aged 15 or below.
The suicide rate among older people is consistently higher than that of other age groups. Within our elderly population, the suicide rate of men aged 60 or above has increased significantly, from 24.3 in 2020 to 27.3 in 2021. The suicide rate of women aged 60 or above saw a slight drop, from 14.9 in 2020 to 14.6 in 2021.
As for young people, the suicide rate among those aged 15 or below reached a record 1.7 per 100,000 in 2021, up from 0.7 in 2019 and 1.3 in 2020. Though the base rate is low, the increasing trend is concerning. One death by suicide is too many, especially among young people. Our society has clearly failed these youths who lost hope to face life’s adversities.
Over nearly three years, the pandemic and its associated quarantine measures have disrupted social activity and induced considerable stress, social isolation and anxiety in the whole community. This is especially true for those who are unwell and have limited social and family support.
Some older adults have also been emotionally affected by the migration of their adult children and grandchildren, of which we are seeing an increasing trend. The sense of abandonment and loneliness is palpable. It is important to create intergenerational support and rebuild community networks to provide a social safety net.
For younger people, there appears to be a growing global trend of a feelings of hopelessness, with less chance of upward mobility. The use of social media and deteriorating support amid divorce and strained family relationships also contribute to worsening mental well-being and suicide risk.
During the pandemic, children in low-income groups have been badly affected by family financial difficulties and school closures and disruption. School administrators need to be sensitive to the needs of our young people. We all need to adapt, and provide a safe haven to support the vulnerable.
This year also marks the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention. Sadly, in that time, we have seen around 20,000 lives lost through suicide, with the number of affected family members possibly surpassing 100,000. Losing those closest to you creates a wound that does not heal easily, if at all. It’s important to remember that carrying on and living a good, meaningful life is the best way to honour those who have left us.
In all this time, we have not wavered in our mission, offering up our sweat and our tears. All these deaths have taught us perseverance and humility, as well as how to walk with the community. We have joined hands to march forward with people in need. We are committed to looking out for each other, bravely facing life’s challenges, together creating a better Hong Kong with hope for everyone.
World Suicide Prevention Day is more than just a date in the calendar; it is about embedding awareness, support and action in our everyday lives. We can all take time to reach out to someone and start a conversation with those around us if we notice something is different. By stepping closer and connecting with others, we can encourage those with suicidal thoughts to reach out.
We can also take time to find out what kind of help is available for ourselves and for others. We never know when we might need this knowledge, and by being aware, we can be ready to support those in need. Every action, however simple, can connect someone to life and the help they need.
Preventing suicides requires us to become beacons of light for those in pain. With persistence and by maintaining hope, we can ride out life’s storms and challenges, and our society can be better tomorrow.