Listening: first step of suicide prevention
“I lost all passion. Before, whatever I did it was enjoyable, but these days, even if I try to be passionate, I do not have any energy.”
Following the suicides of four students and a professor at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) last year, a fifth student took his own life. His parting words left family and friends struggling to understand what pushed the “normally cheerful” boy into despair. In response to the tragedy, KAIST president Suh Nam-pyo formed an emergency committee dedicated to suicide prevention.
Psychiatrist Park Jin-seng shared tips on coping with people in crisis, emphasizing that a good listener has the power to prevent suicide.
“In some ways, listening is more important than talking,” says Park.
When conversing with someone who is deeply depressed, it is important to listen calmly, carefully and with patience.”
“The urge to survive is a powerful instinct,” he explained. “Even in the final moments before a suicide attempt, every person really wants to live. For this reason, suicidal people can be persuaded to abandon their plans if we can give them appropriate reason to keep going.”
Empathy is key
“Empathy is the single most important thing,” says Park. “Through understanding, we allow others to feel loved, less alone, and cared about. This lessens their burden.”
An attitude of unconditional acceptance is paramount.
“This is not the time for dismissive platitudes or moral judgment,” he added. “We should listen more than we talk, and not rush into premature advice.”
Though risk factors vary from case to case, threats of self-harm should always be taken seriously. As Korea faces one of the highest suicide rates in the OECD, the need for vigilance has never been greater.
Korea is an exception to other OECD countries, as Korean women are much more likely to take their own lives than men. Suicide is also related to age, with people aged under 25 and elderly people especially at risk.
Park emphasized that prevention begins with understanding individuals.
“Asking direct, open questions such as, ’Why do you want to die?’, or ’Do you have a plan?’ can help determine the seriousness of the situation,” he advised. “The immediate goal is to make a connection on a human level.”
Treating suicidal people may require tough choices, especially when secrecy is demanded. Park notes that there are times when trust is trumped by necessity.
“Confidentiality is ideal when possible, but when the outcome is irreversible, we must protect life. Next steps could mean talking to a medical professional, parent, or the police.”
Warning signs in children
“Children at risk of suicide tend to show signs that parents can observe,” says Park. “They include loss of appetite, sleep disturbance that continues for two weeks or longer, and a decline in school performance.”
Park added that suicidal youths may display so-called “cries for help” in the form of destructive diary entries, scribbling or drawings, or may scratch or cut themselves. In many cases, the critical word is “sudden.”
“Abrupt changes are warning signs, and may include peer isolation, sudden indulgence in violence, drugs or alcohol, and unexplained personality changes.”
Suicide prevention hotlines provide emergency assistance, but Park expressed concerns about the quality of volunteer-based services.
“The majority of services are operated by volunteers who don’t have a great deal of career or professional education. Ritualistic or formal services can serve as a bridge to medical professionals such as psychiatrists or mental health institutes, but they are not the final solution.”
Park observed that services offered for foreigners are limited. He recently established a 24-hour crisis hotline run by medical professionals, operated in Korean and English.
Resources in Korean include Call of loving (1566-2525) English speakers can visit www.lifeinkorea.com or call 1588-4276.
The writer is a guest columnist from Ontario, Canada, and is currently living in Seoul. She welcomes topic suggestions from readers and can be reached at email@example.com.