Swiss urged to confront silent killer

Every day four people commit suicide in Switzerland

Switzerland has launched its first concerted effort to fight suicide - the country has one of the highest rates in the world.

This content was published on May 6, 2002 - 18:26

During a two-day congress, which starts on Tuesday, representatives from medical, charitable and religious groups are to debate the causes and solutions to suicide, which experts say is still a taboo subject in Switzerland.

A key goal is also to petition the Swiss government to become more proactive in fighting the problem.

Every day, four people commit suicide in Switzerland and the annual rate of up to 1,500 deaths is higher than the number of fatalities from car accidents.

But despite the high incidence of deaths through suicide, there are no organisations in Switzerland that offer counselling for people on the verge of taking their own lives or for the families of those who have committed suicide.

"We very much hope that this conference will kick-start groups into working together to improve the situation and to provide some sort of umbrella organisation for suicide," says Andreas Stauffer, a spokesman for the Swiss Union of Protestant Churches, which set up the congress together with the charity, Caritas.

Stauffer says the Swiss Protestant Church is so far the only organisation that has endeavoured to provide a service for those in need, by launching a website on suicide and by providing pastoral care.

"We really need a helpline and trained counsellors to help victims," Ebo Aebischer, a protestant vicar, told swissinfo. "At the moment, I'm the only person in the country who's specialised in looking after people who are in grieving for someone who's taken his or her own life - and that's the toughest kind of grieving."

No definable groups

The difficulties in tackling suicide are compounded by the fact that there no patterns to suggest that certain social groups are more likely to resort to suicide than others - suicides are highest among farmers and the medical profession.

And contrary to popular belief, factors such as unemployment and financial hardship often to lead to a decrease- rather than an increase- in suicides.

However, the suicide rate is more than twice as high among men than women, who are more likely to resort to attempted suicide as a desperate cry for help.

"Young men are more "successful" in their suicide attempts, whereas for women, it's often a way of signalling the need for help," Felix Gutzwiller, director of the Institute of Preventative Medicine at Zurich University, told swissinfo. "We've also seen a rise among the very elderly, which is perhaps linked to changes in attitudes towards assisted suicides, in the face of disease for example."


A crucial aim of the conference is to bring the subject of suicide out into the open, instead of sweeping it under the carpet, says Hans Balz Peter, the director of social ethics for the Union of Protestant churches.

"People don't know how to react and to behave with families where's there's been a case of suicide, so that people end up feeling lonely and unable to discus the issue," says Peter.

No easy solution

The organisers of the conference stress that there is no easy solution to tackle suicide.

Gutzwiller believes that a key issue is to raise the profile of mental healthcare in Switzerland.

"Long term, we have to promote mental health, because it's an area which has been neglected in Switzerland," Gutzwiller said.

"In the short term, we also have to have to sensitise people to the issue. There are often signs that a person is about commit suicide - and people should be trained to spot the signs and to start a dialogue with that person."

Decline in rates

An encouraging development is that annual suicide rates in Switzerland have decreased since reaching a peak in 1983 - although this may not be a long-term trend.

"You can't draw conclusions from the figures, because suicide rates have gone up and down in the last century," says Aebischer. "It could be a sign of hope - but if it's hope we're after, we have to do something to fight the problem."

by Vanessa Mock

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