More people were arrested for attempting suicide last year, according to latest police figures as of June 8. Last year, 901 people were arrested for trying to kill themselves, compared with 862 in 2013.
The 4.5 per cent increase in arrests, however, may not necessarily be a cause for alarm. Experts said the rise could be due to better intervention by third parties, such as family, friends and the police.
Under Section 309 of the Penal Code, those who attempt suicide can be punished with jail for up to a year, or with a fine, or both.
People's attitude towards suicide has changed, said Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist in private practice. "Now they are more willing to look for help or approach the police to intervene, or (take) suicidal people to the hospital where, sometimes, police reports are lodged."
Dr Lim added that while suicide might be more taboo in the past and usually hushed up, increased awareness of intervention methods available may have helped to nudge the shift in attitudes.
Women, in general, have twice the attempted suicide rate as men, said Dr Adrian Wang, a psychiatrist at Gleneagles Medical Centre, citing global studies. Experts said no similar study for Singapore has been done. Those who attempt suicide are also more likely to be younger women, while cases that result in definite death tend to involve older men, according to Dr Chia Boon Hock, a psychiatrist who specialises in suicide.
The number of suicide deaths in 2013 was 422, down from 467 the year before. Statistics for last year have yet to be released. While some attempt suicide on impulse, the state of a person's mental health is a major factor. Aggravating factors include substance abuse or excessive alcohol consumption.
Said Dr Wang: "People who attempt suicide normally have psychiatric issues, the most common of which would be depression."
Citing a 2011 study by the Institute of Mental Health, Ms Jolene Tan, senior manager for programmes and communications at the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware), said: "Women in Singapore are almost twice as likely to have major depressive disorder as men."
There is, however, a silver lining: People are increasingly aware of when and where to seek help.
Samaritans of Singapore (SOS) reported a 260 per cent rise in the number of people who have sought emotional support via e-mail from 2009 to last year.
SOS executive director Christine Wong said that while some who approach the non-profit group are on the verge of taking their life, the majority seek emotional support at "earlier stages of their crisis".
While suicide is illegal, those arrested are often referred to professionals. Some are let off with a stern warning, said experts.
Statistics from the State Courts show only five cases filed, with at least one charge under Section 309 of the Penal Code, last year. This figure is also the lowest in a steady decline from 16 such cases in 2010.
Lawyer Peter Ong of Templars Law believes the suicide law should be abolished as it does not serve as a deterrent.
"Knowing they may be arrested if their attempt fails may push them to complete it," said Mr Ong.
Others, such as consultant psychiatrist Joshua Kua from Raffles Medical Group, pointed out that most developed countries have decriminalised suicide.
"The resources used towards its criminalisation can be better used towards its prevention," he added.
Aware's Ms Tan said those who are vulnerable need support instead of the threat of arrest and criminal proceedings, which may further traumatise them.
Still, some believe the law helps to deter suicide. Said Dr Lim: "Singaporeans are mostly law-abiding people, and some may be less likely to attempt suicide if it is illegal."
WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR
Family and friends play an important role in saving their loved ones from suicidal thoughts or actions.
Here are tips on what they should look out for and how they can help.
Sudden change in behaviour, dramatic shifts in mood, deep anxiety and agitation, abusive consumption of drugs and alcohol.
Repeated mentions of ending one's life, or expressions such as "Life is too painful for me".
Behaviour that suggests preparation for suicide, such as writing suicide notes or tidying up affairs.
Self-harm (Call the police immediately).
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Be a friend; find out what is on their mind.
Listen with sympathy, reassure them that they are not alone.
Remind the person that his life is important to you.
Help him to focus his thoughts on positive aspects of his life. Advise the person to seek help, such as calling helplines or seeing a doctor, and assist him in doing so.
Keep in touch with the person.
IF SOMEONE IS ABOUT TO ATTEMPT SUICIDE...
If the person phones you, remain on the line for as long as possible. Find out where he is and try to call an ambulance from another phone. Check if there is anyone near the person who can help.
If the person has not harmed himself yet, ensure that he has no access to suicide methods by locking the windows and putting away sharp objects, among other things.
Do not put yourself at risk, such as wrestling for a potential suicide weapon.
Encourage the person to speak to a counsellor, accompany him to the hospital, or call an ambulance.
SOS: 1800-221-4444 (24-hour)
Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019
Mental Health helpline: 6389-2222 (24-hour)
Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 1800-353-5800
This article was first published on July 18, 2015.
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