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Gender factor in suicide

As recent events might suggest, suicide rates are rising alarmingly all over the world.

Indeed, the World Health Organization identifies suicide as a major health problem worldwide, with the list of countries raking up the highest incidences of self-inflicted death surprisingly diverse in terms of culture (including religion), economic status or political system. Among the “Top Five” countries with the highest rates of suicide as compiled by the WHO are Sri Lanka, South Korea and Lithuania. Another top-ranking Asian country is Japan.

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Surprisingly, given the amount of media exposure devoted to it, the United States  ranks 48 in this same global survey of suicide incidence. But American health authorities are still sounding the alarm since death by suicide is fast rising among the major causes of death there. The Philippines, by the way, ranks 162 in the same survey.

Of particular concern to mental health authorities in the United States is the rapid increase in suicides committed by adolescents. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the suicide rate for white children and teens between 10 and 17 years was up 70 percent between 2006 and 2016. And, “although black children and teens kill themselves less often than white youth do,” the rate of increase among them was higher at 77 percent.

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Interesting as the ethnicity or race factor may be, mental health authorities say another factor is often overlooked: gender. In 2015, the medical journal

The Lancet reported a “devastating new finding” that shocked the medical establishment worldwide. This was the WHO’s finding that “suicide had surpassed maternal mortality as the leading cause of death among girls aged 15-19 years globally.”

The Lancet stressed that “new research is needed to understand the drivers of self-harm and suicide in girls across different settings, to inform program design and policy dialogue that can ameliorate this grave situation.”

Early studies point to one important factor: “rigid and exploitative gender norms” that can be harmful.

Adolescence, it has been pointed out, is a risky time and place to be. “We know that, after the onset of puberty, the risk of depressive disorders increases substantially among girls, who will remain 1.5 to 2 times more likely than boys to be diagnosed with depression, a gap that will persist over their life course,” says the Lancet article. “For girls who experience victimization in early adolescence, mental health outcomes are particularly adverse.”

For young women around the world, adolescence is the time when they begin to experience “increased gender role differentiation and, in many cases, exaggerated forms of gender-based discrimination,” including sexual exploitation,

violence, denial of education and autonomy and exclusion from educational opportunities. “Rigid gender norms can profoundly and negatively affect both girls and boys, but can particularly constrain girls’ aspirations and opportunities.”

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Young women’s troubled mental state is often impacted by their sexual and reproductive health and rights—or lack of them. Certainly, early marriage, early pregnancy and childbirth, and intimate partner violence can deepen the depression they are already burdened with, being young and being women.

With the recent passage of the Mental Health Law, the country’s health community has the golden opportunity to institute in its standards of diagnosis and care a “gender lens” to include the social demands made on young women as they navigate their way through the “fog of war” of early adolescence.

Even better, programs should be more aggressively pursued to talk to young people—openly, honestly, and respectfully—about the issues bothering them. This should include not just coping with  peer pressure and issues of self-esteem, but also frank discussions about sexuality, relationships and protection, including contraception.

Suicide, it has been said, is a “permanent response to a temporary problem.” All the more is it important to show young people that their state of flux will soon come to an end, but that, in the meantime, help is available and people care.

[email protected]

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