Depression And Suicide Are Major Issues Families And Societies Need to Talk About
Earlier this year, Netflix released a show called 13 Reasons Why, a teen drama about a female high schooler who takes her own life. Reactions to it were intense. Some people defended the show for increasing awareness regarding suicide, a topic not often talked about; others, including suicide-prevention experts, denounced it for glamorizing the act. Whether or not the show helped raise awareness of suicide or sensationalized the topic (or both), one thing is certain: suicide is something we need to address, especially in our families.
Father Dennis Paez, SDB, is no stranger to the pain and devastation that suicide leaves in its wake. He has been a friend and mentor to many, particularly to families that are grieving. “I have been a psychologist for 26 years and have been counseling parents whose children have committed suicide for the past eight years,” he shared. “Reports have definitely gone up, because people are more open. Before, they would keep these (cases of suicide in families) secret. Now, people are less in denial about this.”
Father Dennis became involved with grief counseling after a group called The Healing Circles reached out to him. “It’s a grief recovery and support group. As a priest, I had previous experience listening to and counseling those who are grieving. It comes with the job. But I started to concentrate more on grief counseling after meeting this group,” he explained.
When asked if the rate of suicide has increased in the country since he first started grief counseling, Father Dennis replied, “According to statistics from the Department of Health (DOH) in 2012, there were more than 2,500 cases of suicides in the country. In the same year, the fourth leading cause of death among those between 10 and 14 years of age was suicide.”
Father Dennis talks about how even children as young as 10 can take their own lives. He explained that, “Often, this is due to the perception that there is a lack of love for them. For example, when parents separate, children can automatically blame themselves, especially the younger ones. They think they are the reason, which leads to depression and suicidal thoughts. ‘Oh my grades are low, that’s why my parents separated.’ It might sound ridiculous, but children can think this. It’s perception kasi, eh. It’s not enough to say you love your child. Your child must know this,” he reminded parents.
“Parents think, hindi ba n’ya nakikita na nagtratrabaho ako para sa kanya? That is not obvious to a child. Hindi ’yan alam ng bata. A child needs to be affirmed and told that she or he is intelligent. Tell them about their good qualities. They need to know na may karapatan silang mabuhay,” he declared.
In his view, one cause that has led to the increase in cases of suicide is the breakup of families. “Wala silang nasasandalan. Has bullying existed? For the longest time, yes. Have there been heartbroken people in the past? Yes. But now, hindi siguro sanay ang Pilipino na walang buong pamilya to rely on. Para sa akin, the incidents of depression and suicide are not because of more depressing events in life, but are due, in part, to a weakening of our family support system. For example, nowadays there are more cases of both parents working, some abroad,” he said. This is not said to condemn parents who need to go overseas for work; rather, it is a reminder that despite such arrangements, parents still need to reach out to their children and have an open line of communication with them, whether or not they are physically apart.
Father Dennis has read a number of reports, as well as counseled enough families, to see certain patterns in how and why people end up taking their own lives. According to him, most suicides occur in the morning, when family members are either still asleep or outside the house for work or school. While most people report feeling depressed during holidays, in general, there are more suicide attempts around April. He revealed that, “All people who commit suicide do not necessarily want to die—they just want a better life. And they cannot see how they can have a better life without ending the one they currently have.”
Father Dennis shared that all over the world, more females attempt to take their lives, but in reality, more males succeed. “Generally, females can have up to three or four attempts. But for males, the second attempt is often the last. Their thinking is that ayaw na nilang ‘mapahiya’ or something like that. I think it’s a macho thing — they think, magpapakamatay na nga lang ako, dapat magawa ko na,” he said.
“I had a case where a boy was on suicide watch because he had already attempted to take his life twice. One day, there was a balikbayan visitor who dropped by, so the family members all went downstairs to greet the visitor. In a matter of minutes, the boy was dead. Ang bilis,” he shared sadly. “Suicide is a perceived solution. It is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” However, he revealed, “the root cause of people wanting to commit suicide is depression.”
Father Dennis revealed that one very often disregarded symptom when it comes to depression and suicide is the way a person goes from one extreme to another. “A person who is depressed may go to extremes. Overeating or undereating. Oversleeping or undersleeping. Too happy or too sad. Too active and then too lazy.”
“Some people say to me, hindi namin akalain na depressed sya kasi biglang ang saya-saya na nya. But when a person who is undergoing extreme depression suddenly, without warning, becomes peaceful and happy, and starts giving away his things, be alert. He may have already decided to kill himself,” Father Dennis cautioned.
This goes against the usual image people have of an emotional, crying person taking his own life, but Father Dennis confirmed that people who are suicidal can be quite calm before committing the act. “When a person takes their own life, they aren’t crying as it happens. They are often cool and collected. There isn’t any drama. They are numb.”
Such shifts in mood and activity, particularly in people who have a history of depression, should not be disregarded. “Depression is a sickness,” Father Dennis emphasized. This is something that he wants parents to know and understand. “We associate depression with unhappiness, but it is really more like a disease. It is a sickness, just like arthritis, a fever, or a stomachache. It can strike anybody, at any time. Some people can be more prone to depression due to a genetic predisposition or issues in the family, but those who get depressed are not abnormal. Everyone can get depressed. Depression and suicide have to be talked about but not sensationalized.”
In another case he encountered, the entire family refused to talk about a suicide that had happened. “The parents said not to talk about it. Then one day in school, during the morning assembly, their other child jumps down the school building,” Father Dennis said. “Para sa akin, suicide is the most terrible kind of death within a family, because pwedeng masundan yan. It becomes an option among family members, especially when it is not talked about. When families refuse to talk about the suicide of a loved one, they think they are making it go away, which is not true.”
“Of course,” he added, “it is not good to overpublicize suicide as well, like what some newspapers do. For some young people, they think that suicide can be their ‘moment of fame.’ We don’t want to encourage that. I went to a school in the province where one child committed suicide. There was a big funeral and all the teachers said all these good things about the child. Kulang na lang bigyan siya ng posthumous award. Ayun. Nasundan ng dalawa pang bata.”
It is difficult to strike a balance when dealing with and talking about such a sensitive topic, especially among young people. Once a suicide occurs in a family, everyone is affected. One important thing to do is create a safe space wherein each member of the family can process the event. For those who have lost loved ones to suicide and need counseling, Father Dennis advised: “There are family therapy sessions where the members can express what they felt, what they think the cause of the suicide was, and how they are—not were, but are—affected. Even small children can be included in this.”
“I suggest joining a support group, such as the Healing Circle, where they can find people who have similar experiences. There is another support group I am in touch with, under Bo Sanchez, called From Mourning to Morning. They are very nice people. This group provides support not just for people who have lost a loved one to suicide, but for those who have experienced sudden death in the family, due to accidents or illness,” he shared.
But what can a parent, family member, or friend do to help a loved one who is going through depression, and prevent suicide from happening to begin with? Father Dennis revealed: “Listen. Listen to the person’s problem, no matter how ridiculous it may seem. Do not disprove their experience, or say ‘wala lang yan.’ For you, it might be a small thing, but to them—to a child or a teen—it may be a big thing.” At an age where a young person is still building his or her own identity and trying to find a voice, it is important to know that someone is listening and that what they are trying to say matters to the people around them.
Father Dennis also believes that there are three key things that can best combat depression. “One, something to do. Two, something to look forward to. Three, someone to love. This is very important. Many people come to me because they feel unloved.”
He continued: “There are many things out there that can combat depression. Medication. Exercise. Avoiding certain foods. But for me, these three things are the most important, especially the last point. When these three are present in your life, it is harder to fall into depression.”
“What does this mean, in our Christian faith? What is something to do? Seek to love God. What is something to look forward to? To be able to truly love God. who is someone to love? God! God is love, di ba? Allow yourself to be loved by Him. This is difficult, because we live in a very conditional world,” Father Dennis said.
“Our real need is to love,” he emphasized. “People feel unloved when they want to love someone but the other person does not respond. Everyone needs to know that he or she is loved. Irrevocably.”
While childhood and youth are often romanticized as the best time of our lives, they can also be times of confusion, alienation and uncertainty. Depression and suicide are realities that even children face, and they need to face these with the support and care of loved ones. It’s important that we let our children know that we acknowledge what they are going through, whether they are depressed or just having a bad day, and that we love them, without conditions.
Key facts and statistics
- More than 300 million people of all ages around the world suffer from depression.
- Nearly 800,000 people die from suicide every year.
- Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide.
- The strongest risk factor for suicide in the general population is a previous suicide attempt.
- Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15 to 29-year-olds around the world.
- In 2003, the ninth leading cause of death among 20 to 24-year-olds in the Philippines was suicide, with seven out of 10 being male.
- As of 2015, the rate of death by suicide in the Philippines was 5.8 per 100,000 people.
- 78 percent of global suicides occur in low- and middle-income countries.
- More women are affected by depression than men.
- At its worst, depression can lead to suicide. Nevertheless, effective treatments for depression exist.
PREVENTION: Spotting the signs
Some signs that a person may be considering suicide include:
- Clinical depression
- Constantly talking or thinking about death
- Contacting people to say goodbye
- An increase in risk-taking behavior or having a “death wish,” such as driving recklessly
- Losing interest in things that used to interest them
- Talking about feelings of hopelessness, helplessness or worthlessness; thinking that s/he “wants out” or “it would be better if I weren’t here”
- Putting one’s affairs in order, such as drafting or changing a will, giving away belongings, writing people letters
- A sudden, unexpected shift in mood, from being depressed to being calm or happy
- Talking about killing one's self
Originally published by Metro Society magazine