A conference on preventing suicide among young people is being held in Geneva, a city which has had dramatic success in reducing its suicide rate.This content was published on November 23, 2001 - 10:34
A taboo still remains around the issue of suicide. But there is a pressing need to address it, since, in Switzerland, as in many western countries, suicide is the main cause of death among young people.
The three-day international gathering, which will be attended by Swiss Interior Minister Ruth Dreifuss and French Health Minister Bernard Kouchner, has been jointly organised by the Children Action charity and Geneva's University Hospital.
"The simple message is that suicide prevention is possible. Nobody believed it five years ago," says Maja Perret-Catipovic, the psychologist in charge of the hospital's suicide prevention and research unit.
Talk and listen
And the most effective method of suicide prevention? "Talk about it. And listen to the reasons," Perret-Catipovic told swissinfo.
While the suicide rate in Switzerland among 15-24 year-olds has remained stubbornly among the highest in Europe, in Geneva it has fallen dramatically. In the past 25 years, the figure has dropped from 30.7 cases per 100,000 inhabitants to just 8.8 cases.
Little wonder, then, that Geneva's relatively simple system has attracted plaudits abroad, and been emulated in parts of France.
The decline in the number of suicides has been especially marked in the past four years, since the creation of the suicide prevention and research unit, and a special inpatient unit for young people at risk.
Those in charge of these centres say there are many complex factors at play, but key aspects in Geneva's success have been giving young people a forum in which to talk about the problems that might drive them to try to take their own lives, and giving parents, teachers and friends the mechanism to act should a young person they know be at risk.
Gay suicide rate
A significant proportion of those who do attempt suicide are gay. A study last year by the Canton Vaud University Hospital in Lausanne concluded that homosexual males are eight times more likely to try to take their own life than heterosexual ones. It found that a quarter of all gay men between the ages of 16 and 25 had made at least one attempt at suicide.
Studies from elsewhere suggest homosexuality is not a factor in suicide rates. And the Geneva psychologists say that other factors - depression, drug abuse, family environment, eating disorders, a family history of suicide, dropping out of school and so on - are equally important.
But given the Lausanne findings, what has disturbed Perret-Catipovic is the negligible number of homosexuals coming to her unit for help.
It's estimated that only around one in four of young people attempting suicide ends up in hospital, and one of the key subjects at this No Suicide conference is how to target those who have received no medical care and advice.
"We need to find ways to get in touch with all those young people in the general population who are at risk," says François Ladame, the head of the special unit for suicidal adolescents at the University Hospital.
Given its small staff, the way the Geneva system has achieved its success has been to create a network - including parents, teachers, sports instructors and others who come into contact with adolescents - so that the danger signs can be recognised and acted upon as quickly as possible.
This is especially important given the reluctance of young people to seek the help of health care professionally - especially psychologists, who are powerless to act unless help is sought.
"It's better to help the parents learn how to cope with a suicidal child than waiting for the child to turn up in the emergency ward," Perret-Catipovic says.
She says it is important to take the warning signs seriously. It is no good friends and family telling a suicidal youngster to snap out of it, assuring them that all will be fine tomorrow: "That kind of advice is only useful to the person giving it, not to the person who needs it," she says.
Just two full time workers and one part timer run the Geneva suicide prevention unit, and as such it is relatively cheap to fund. Even so, it would have struggled to get off the ground without a private foundation providing half the money.
"I would like our political authorities to acknowledge that not enough has been done to prevent youth suicide," Ladame says. The government has achieved impressive results by directing money at other major problems, such as drug abuse, AIDS and the prevention of road traffic accidents
"If they made the same kind of money available, we would be in a better position to fight this problem," he says.
by Roy Probert
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