Avoiding pesticides could reduce worldwide suicide rates


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A new study published in The Lancet sheds insight into suicide prevention and provides new reasons to choose pesticide-free.

Swallowing pesticides is one of the most common methods of suicide globally, according to the World Health Organisation. Worldwide, an estimated three million cases of pesticide poisoning occur every year, resulting in an excess of 250,000 deaths. 

In Sri Lanka, it is the most common means of self-harm and the country’s fifth leading cause of death. So the researchers explored different methods of storing the pesticides to see whether making them less accessible led to a decrease in incidents among farmers across more than 53,000 households and 220,000 people.

After three years, it was found that the improved storage did little to minimise rates of self-harm which were fairly even among groups.

“Combined with evidence from other countries, the trial suggests that policy makers should focus their attention on withdrawal of the most harmful pesticides from agricultural practice,” said senior author Professor Michael Eddleston, from the University of Edinburgh.

While pesticide-ingestion is a problem common to Asian countries (accounting for between 60 per cent and 90 per cent of suicides in China, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Trinidad), the research does suggest that if we choose pesticide-free or fewer imported products containing pesticides we help reduce demand in areas where they are causing harm.

“There’s a huge economic chain. Any pressure to put on governments to reduce the locality of pesticides [is positive],” says Professor Helen Christensen, director of the Black Dog Institute. 

Such research also highlights the importance of removing means of self-harm in all countries.

“Means restriction is very effective,” she said. “One of the things we know about suicide ideation and wanting to die is that it does dissipate with time.

“Anything that provides a delay is likely to increase or lower risk. Having a higher barrier, having people around in an area where people might be likely to take their own lives. All these things are inhibitors of the person taking their own life.”

It might seem overly simplistic, but it does work, Christensen says.

“There has been research that has shown if you put barriers on a particular hotspot bridge then people don’t necessarily switch and go to the next bridge,” she explains. 

In Australia, we do means restriction “pretty well” Christensen says, but we can do better.

“There are many, many changes we need to make in the architecture of buildings, the way we design coastal parks, the way we look after access to prescription and other dangerous drugs,” she says.

Means restriction is one method of reducing suicide rates, which takes eight Australian lives every day, with about 30 more attempting to end their life each day.  

There are other ways to tackle the big problem. Making sure people are supported after they leave emergency centres is important, as is education and prevention programs in schools. 

“There’s certainly evidence that a specific program leads to a reduction in suicide attempts of kids within schools,” Christensen says. “Black Dog is working with the NSW Education Department to get a program called YAM [Youth Aware of Mental health] taken up in all the schools. There’s a whole range of different interventions that can be done.”

It is a multi-faceted problem that can be addressed in multi-faceted ways; as individuals, as communities offering support to each other, in the design of our spaces and at broader levels in education and our politics.

Christensen adds that socio-ecomomic factors influence suicide rates as does social equality. 

“In some countries where there’s recognition of same-sex marriage, suicide rates are lower,” she says. “There’s politics and individual, on-the-ground-things that can be done.” 

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