Expert panel discusses suicide prevention
By John McPhaul
In the the context of Suicide Prevention Month, the Mental Health and Anti-Addiction Services Administration (ASSMCA by its Spanish initials) on Tuesday held a forum entitled “Don’t Fight in Silence,” at Braulio Castillo Theater in Bayamón, with the purpose of raising awareness about the issue among the population and avoiding more deaths from suicide in Puerto Rico.
The space served to discuss, among other topics, changes generated by the COVID-19 pandemic that have affected the mental health of residents in Puerto Rico and that could lead citizens to experience suicidal thoughts. Another topic was how culture can make it difficult to discuss suicide with loved ones, especially among men because talking about suicide still creates social divisions in communities, and what can be done to reduce those barriers.
The event, led by the ASSMCA administrator, Carlos Rodríguez Mateo, was attended by the agency’s behavioral professionals, including Juan Vélez Court (coordinator of the Mutual Support Center), Aixa Pacheco Valderrama (crisis counselor for the PAS Line), Joel Ubiñaz Cordero (coordinator of the COVID Emergency Project) and Nelson Vega Vázquez (Ponce regional supervisor of the Conéctate Project).
Rodríguez Mateo highlighted the importance of making suicide and suicidal ideas visible, without stigmatizing people who may be going through this situation, as an important tool to eradicate the problem and prevent more deaths.
“In Puerto Rico, suicide is the third leading cause of violent death. Approximately every 29 hours a death by suicide is reported on the island,” Rodríguez Mateo said. “If we speak openly about suicide, we will be able to attend to it effectively and people will seek immediate help. From ASSMCA we have reinforced the work and message of prevention, as well as direct help, particularly in our communities, because deaths by suicide can be prevented and this is reflected in statistics and studies, prevention and work help. For this reason, the call we are making today is to spread the word because the help is there and the important thing is that we identify warning signs among family members and friends, and activate support networks in our communities, workplaces, schools, universities, wherever we find them, because suicide is preventable.”
Rodríguez Mateo noted that people who have suicidal ideas have the ASSMCA PAS Line, which they can call to express themselves and receive mental health services.
“ASSMCA’s PAS Line is the best example of how people talking can prevent suicide,” he added.
From 2001 to the present, the ASSMCA PAS Line has received 3,823,582 calls. Of those, 951,938 are directly related to citizens who have suicidal ideas. From the beginning of 2022 to June, the Institute of Forensic Sciences (ICF) reported 80 suicides.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines suicide as “any act by which an individual causes injury or harm to himself or herself with varying degrees of intent to die, regardless of the degree of lethal intent or knowledge of the true motive.”
During the panel, mental health specialists shared that despite increasing research and knowledge about suicide and its prevention, taboo and stigma persist. It is estimated that, for each completed suicide, up to 20 attempts may occur. About 90 percent of suicide cases in Puerto Rico are male, a fact that, according to resources, may be tied to a culture of non-expression of emotions, problems or feelings. The method most used in suicides in Puerto Rico is suffocation.
The forum is one of the many components of the Don’t Fight in Silence initiative, an ASSMCA educational campaign aimed at raising public awareness of the importance of talking about emotions and asking for professional help in time. Through the initiative, the ASSMCA PAS Line numbers 9-8-8, 1-800-981-0023, and the TDD 1-888-672-7622 are also reinforced, as well as the lineapas.assmcachat.pr.gov. to seek professional help.