Human Rights Approaches to Suicide Prevention Make Life “More Liveable”

Dainius Pūras

We cannot effectively prevent suicide by increasing the use of prescription medicines. Instead, we need to acknowledge that emotional pain frequently comes from social problems, including being a victim of violence, discrimination, or exclusion.

Today, 10 October, is World Mental Health Day, so it is fitting that we take this moment to reflect on the right to mental health, and how mental distress is frequently poorly managed. Targeting the brain chemistry of individuals often exacerbates stigma and social exclusion, aggravates loneliness and helplessness and fails to reduce the risk of suicide.

Treating individual responses to adversity as if they are medical conditions disempowers individuals and perpetuates social exclusion and stigma. Interpersonal and gender-based violence, and child abuse and neglect, all contribute to the high incidence and the economic burden of mental health conditions.

If we are serious about preventing suicide, we must pursue new approaches that fortify healthy, respectful and trusting relationships which also include connecting people with communities. Suicide prevention must address the structural factors that make lives unliveable and examine how distress arises within power imbalances and within harmful relationships.

A targeted, individual response to each person’s situation is vital in suicide prevention, and each response should be careful to avoid excessive use of medication, coercion, and isolation.

To help people to want to stay alive and thrive, it is necessary to have ongoing community-based care within robust support systems that can adequately reach people where they live, work, learn and play. States should adopt rights-based strategies to suicide prevention that avoid excessive medicalisation and addresses societal determinants, promoting autonomy and resilience through social connection, tolerance, justice, and healthy relationships.

Dainius Pūras is the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health