With approximately one completed suicide every hour in South Africa, it is hard to believe that the country does not have a clear and comprehensive national suicide prevention strategy in place.
“Although suicide is a serious public health problem, very few low- and middle-income countries have national suicide prevention strategies, even though 80% of suicides occur in these settings. South Africa, like most countries in Africa, does not have an explicit and comprehensive strategy to prevent suicides," says Dr Jason Bantjes a senior lecturer in the Department of Psychology at Stellenbosch University. Bantjes does research on the prevalence and prevention of suicidal behaviour. His work is supported by a grant from the South African Medical Research Council.
Bantjes says the state has developed policies such as the National Mental Health Policy Framework and Strategic Plan, and other strategy documents on violence and injury prevention, which partly address suicide.
“However, these frameworks lack sufficient detail on suicide prevention to be effective substitutes for a dedicated comprehensive evidence-based National Suicide Prevention Strategy."
Bantjes says South Africa clearly needs a comprehensive and decisive national suicide prevention strategy to set suicide prevention targets and provide a framework for stakeholders to work together.
“We need leadership to achieve the kind of integration and cooperation required to reduce suicide rates in our country."
“Such a strategy is crucial considering estimates by the World Health Organisation that worldwide 800 000 people die by suicide each year and suicide the second leading cause of death among 15-29 year-olds."
“For every suicide death there are estimated to be at least another 20 suicide attempts. Each suicide affects a large circle of people. Some studies suggest that as many as 35 people are seriously affected by each suicide."
Bantjes says despite the prevalence of suicide, it remains a mystery why the state has been slow to invest resources in developing a comprehensive and integrated national suicide prevention strategy.
He adds that the interdisciplinary approaches, multilevel strategies and inter-sectoral collaboration needed to prevent suicide can only work if there's a clear and effective national suicide prevention strategy and proper leadership by government.
Bantjes says there are a few reasons why a national suicide prevention strategy is important.
“It indicates a clear commitment from government to prioritise and address suicide, while providing leadership and guidance regarding evidence-based approaches to suicide prevention."
“It also draws attention to the scope of the problem and identifies crucial gaps in existing data, legislation, service provision and training. Furthermore, it identifies the human and financial resources required and sets up a robust monitoring and evaluation framework to ensure that progress is being made towards reducing suicides."
“Crucially, a national strategy creates accountability by clearly identifying those who will be responsible for suicide prevention in the country."
Bantjes adds that a national suicide prevention strategy could also help us to establish a framework for an integrated and comprehensive research agenda, helping to ensure that researchers collect the kinds of evidence needed to curb suicidal behaviour.
He says there is already important suicide prevention research being done in South Africa, but at the moment it is unintegrated and driven by the interests and agendas of individual researchers.
“Because suicide prevention is complicated and so many factors contribute to it, we need a more co-ordinated research network to strengthen capacity and advance suicide prevention practices in South Africa."
According to Bantjes, this is particularly important when it comes to identifying how to adapt evidence-based interventions to ensure that they are culturally appropriate and context sensitive for use in our country.
“It is not always possible to simply adopt strategies developed in other settings without first thinking about their appropriateness and what it will take to tailor them to our particular context."
Bantjes says all who have been affected by suicide should be petitioning the state to provide leadership in this important area of public health.
“We should use opportunities like World Suicide Prevention Day (10 September) to advocate for a national strategy and resources for suicide prevention. Taking action to protect the lives of all South Africans is an integral component of nation building and core to promoting democracy in our country."
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Dr Jason Bantjes
Department of Psychology
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
Tel: 021 808 2665
Tel: 021 808 4921