According to statistics, there are over a million suicides a year worldwide; more than war victims and homicides combined. Similarly, suicide rates among the youth continue to increase. The Review of Religions spoke to Suicidoligist Faryde Lara from Mexico, who recently received an award for her work in the field of health and well-being. She spoke about the rise in suicide rates and the contributing factors, as well as the potential implications of the Covid-19 pandemic on the rate of suicide. Below is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation between Faryde Lara and The Review of Religions Senior Editorial Board member and Clinical Psychologist Sarah Waseem.
SW: Welcome Faryde, can you tell us about what you do as a suicidologist, you know your work, what does that involve?
FL: Well, thank you for having me here. As a suicidologist what I do, it’s a lot of research, I study all the factors that are related to suicide in order to prevent it and also to know the risk factors and the cultural factors that are related to suicide, so I can create strategies to prevent it. I also do some clinical work, I teach psychologists and some psychiatrists or the medical community to detect all the main factors when people go to see them, to see if they’re in risk or not.
SW: And is that across the whole of Mexico or in particular areas of Mexico?
FL: I would like it to be in all around Mexico but it’s not very easy, because sometimes we work with some governments so sometimes, we go to different states and sometimes we also go to private clinics. So, we work maybe 8 or 9 different states out of 30-31, but we try to grow you know, we try to work with all the people who are available and who are interested in preventing suicide.
SW: So, we found out that recently your work has received a very prestigious award from, I think the top university in Mexico? Can you tell us something about this award?
FL: Sure, well thank you. Yeah, it’s actually a very important award. It’s called in Spanish “premio mujer tec” which would be something like “a work-tech woman 2021”, and I won it in the category of “health and well-being.” And for me, the most important thing about this prize is that it gives us an expansive way, you know expansive platforms, different media, to talk about suicide prevention. It’s more important to have these spaces and these different media to prevent suicide, more than the personal value you know.
SW: Yes. I think you’re being exceptionally modest there but congratulations. So, tell us a little bit about how you became interested in this, because I can tell you’re very passionate about preventing suicide. Can you tell us a little bit about what got you interested in this area?
FL: Well yeah sure. Well actually I used to live in France for a long time. I studied there. I’m a filmmaker. And almost 9 years ago someone called me to tell me that my sister, my youngest sister, had committed suicide. So, I came back to Mexico to be with my family, and actually it was very hard for me and my family to leave the grief. We didn’t know really what to do. We went to see different psychologists and psychiatrists and other specialists you know, but nobody really could help us. We didn’t really know what happened. Everything seemed to be alright. But I started to see that some friends, some of my sister’s friends, tried to commit suicide as well. So, at that time I didn’t know what I know now, but I know now that, you know, suicide sometimes, well it affects more than 135 people and some of them would be vulnerable to commit suicide as well. So, I joined a group, actually in England, who is called “Sibling Survivors”, and there were like brothers and sisters who had lost brothers or sisters to suicide as well. It was thanks to them that I learned that suicidology existed. So, then I went to Spain and I studied a Masters in Suicidology and this is how I became a suicidologist. And I opened a foundation in Mexico which is “Sac Foundation” and now this is what we do. We work in different sectors you know, to prevent and create strategies to prevent suicide, and we also help people who have lost family or friends to suicide.
SW: Thank you for telling us that, it must have been an incredibly difficult experience for you. And thank you for sharing that very personal experience with us, and I guess it’s from that that your passion for this work has developed. And you mentioned about finding out that, when you started talking to your sister’s friends, that there were other young people who had been affected, and statistics from The World Health Organisation, as I’m sure you’re aware, suggest that suicide is the third leading cause of death in the 15-19-year age range, and 79% of suicides also occur in low to middle income families. And I wondered, when we think about perhaps the Mexico situation, what your thoughts are about that? What do you think is behind this rate of suicide?
FL: Yeah, well you’re right you know. Suicides are, WHO says, that there are more than a million suicides all around the world per year. This is more than the war victims and homicides together, and actually these are very very sad deaths because they shouldn’t occur. But here for example, the suicide rate has increased for the last 20 years, to almost 400%, and right now it’s the second cause of death of young people in Mexico. So, I think you’re right, and suicides may occur more often in low- and middle-income countries, which is, I think, the case in Mexico as well. I think, you know, suicides are always multi-factorial situations, there’s never only one factor that leads people to commit suicide. You know, it has to do with biological, psychological and with environment factors. Here, what happens is that depression is very present in our country. There’s a lot of anxiety and stress as well. I think 1 of every 4 Mexicans have a mental [health] problem that could be related to suicide. And there’s also you know the fact that Mexican people, there’s a lot of violence in our country. Mexico occupies the 12th place as the most violent country, on the list of the most violent countries. So, violence is a very important factor as well. Poverty of course, because sometimes poverty can lead to violence and mental illness. It’s not always the case of course, but it’s actually a fact that it could be related to suicide. So here we say that it’s the second cause of death between young people, but the first cause of death are accidents, sometimes car accidents, but car accidents are most of the time related to alcohol. Alcohol is also related to suicides, so we don’t really know how many accidents are, you know, really real accidents or maybe suicides disguised as accidents. It’s hard to find a real statistic because it’s hard to really know what’s going on, you know.
SW: Do you think there are some groups in the population that more subjected to violence? I mean, when we were talking before the interview as we were getting to know each other, you did mention about women, and I wondered if you had any thoughts about violence directed towards women, is that particularly high in Mexico?
FL: Well, yeah there is a lot of violence against women in here, you know. The statistics right now that we can find because of the Covid-19 situation, people resting at home, being sometimes forced to be at home, it has raised a lot of violence against women. So yeah, violence is directly related to suicide, to attempts, but we also have to know that 8 out of 10 suicides are committed by men. We say that only 2 out of 10 people are women, but we should know also that women commit more attempts than men. It’s not because they are in less risk, it’s because the methods they use tend to be less lethal than men, but they are a population that are more vulnerable to mental illness and suicide attempts. So, this is something we should really pay attention to because we can’t, well nobody can really stand violence for a long time, and when violent situations come very often you know, and it’s something you live with at home, it’s something you live when you go out on the street, when you talk to people, when you go to work, so if violence is present everywhere, where can you be safe you know?
SW: It’s a very important point you mention there isn’t it, because women are maybe using less, as you say, lethal methods to try and kill themselves and maybe are less, you know to use a difficult word, are less successful at it than men maybe using more lethal ways of killing themselves and therefore more successful. So, you get a higher rate of suicide deaths in men, but many women trying it more, making more suicide attempts. Why do you think, I mean Covid-19 has in this country as well, we’ve seen higher rates of domestic violence in families and against women? Why do you think the rate of violence against women is particularly high in Mexico? Or do you think it just reflects what’s going on in the world anyway, where there is quite a lot of violence towards women, or do you think that women are particularly subject to violence in Mexico?
FL: Well, I think Mexico it’s a very, well we say ‘machista’ (macho), we have a very, well culturally speaking, machos are very present, we think that men are more in power, that they have more authority, that they deserve more than women. I think women in Mexico are very left apart and they’re not really taken into consideration like the same way men are. Even the government sometimes you know they, for example: we used to have like very important organisations that used to defend women, and right now they’re closing these organisations. So, I think that the macho way of thinking is very present in my country and this is very cultural you know, it’s a fact that in Latin America this is a very cultural part. Women didn’t have the same rights that men have today, just some years ago you know so.
SW: What kind of rights? Can you tell us a bit, when you say they didn’t have some rights?
FL: Well for example, it’s a fact that women here don’t earn the same amount of money when they work as men. Just because you’re a woman, you won’t be paid the same thing as men. This is cultural you know, it’s not written in any law, it’s just not written anywhere, but it just happens. So, also, we have to understand that our country doesn’t have the same quality of life, and the same investment in health that maybe other countries. Because here for example, it’s only 2% of the internal government money you know, that is designated to health. It’s only 2%. This is a big difference for example with Spain, because Spain invests maybe 10%. So, there’s a big big difference. We don’t have the same government support, we don’t have same level of organisation, we don’t have the same conscience. So, women sometimes for example, allow themselves to be not treated well. It’s just because they sometimes learn to serve men and we don’t think of ourselves that we have the same rights. But it’s something that we think, it’s not a reality, it’s something that we think that we don’t deserve.
SW: Yes. I wonder what you think the effect of Covid-19 is going to be on suicide rates? Have you seen any – I mean what do you think that’s going to do to rates of suicide in the country?
FL: Well, I think they are going to be higher. We don’t have a real statistic right now because it’s very recent, we’re still home you know. But we have seen that suicide attempts have increased by 40% during the last 10 months. We know that because of the hospitals, the psychiatric hospitals and the hospital urgencies in general, we keep that statistic right now. So, we do know that suicide attempts have increased by 40% and I think you know the situation of being at home, before we could maybe if we were anxious or we were depressed, we could go out of work, to see our friends, to have a drink, to talk to people, and right now it’s something that we cannot do. So, I think the fact of being home is more stressful because you cannot see people, you don’t have the same way to try to get out everything that’s bothering you. It’s hard.
SW: Yes, social contact is not there. I mean I’m interested because, I’m quite interested in the role of faith and kind of mental health. And there’s a lot of evidence coming out that faith correlates positively with good mental health. Mexico is predominately a Catholic country; do you think that faith has a role to play in suicide prevention?
FL: I do. I think it could be important, at the same time sometimes the people that are in front of religions could be also at risk. You know, who tells us that religion it’s the spirituality is an important factor that could protect people from committing suicide. I think it’s important because we always need hope, and religion is something that can give us hope. And more than that, there’s also the community, the religious community, there are people who will help you feel better, there are people who will help you to think in another way. But sometimes when people that are involved in religion, judge you for not feeling ok, or make you feel guilty, or don’t really give you what you need to hear. They could also be a risk, because they could also be something that helps you lose faith, and that’s not good for us.
SW: Yes, if a faith or people practising a faith become judgemental then it can have quite a negative effect on somebody who is already feeling bad. My final question to you, I’m thinking about people who are listening into this, what would you say to somebody who’s listening in now and perhaps feeling suicidal or worried about a relative that they think might be at risk of suicide. What would you say to them?
FL: To the relatives I would say that 9 out of 10 people who commit suicide, they say it, they give signals, and they ask for help. People don’t want to commit suicide because they want to die. They commit suicide because they think that they don’t have another choice. So, we shouldn’t judge people for the way they feel. If you have suicidal thoughts, or you feel that you’re living a hard situation, we should always remember that everything that we live is temporary. Nothing goes on forever. We shouldn’t take permanent decisions for something that’s temporary. Maybe we don’t notice it right now, but sometimes when we wait, we just wait, life could be wonderful. And when we think about our place in the universe, we see that everything changes all the time, including ourselves. So, we just have to be able and accept our own change, because it can happen. So, let’s never lose hope because hope is actually the heart of life. This is what I would say.
SW: That is so beautiful and it’s so invigorating because hope is, as you say, hope is what it’s about. Hope is how we change, and hope is the way forward. Thank you so much for talking to us, we really appreciate that and we’re really grateful for the time that you’ve given us.
FL: Thank you.