Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization estimated that nearly 800,000 people die by suicide across the world every year ‒ to put it in perspective, roughly one person commits suicide every 40 seconds. Just as with the pandemic, suicide occurs indiscriminately across all nations affecting any individuals regardless of their race, nationality, ethnicity, age, gender, culture, religion or socio-economic background. For the past few years, Thailand’s suicide rate trend has been hovering around 6 per 100,000 population before spiking to 7.37 per 100,000 population in 2020 after the pandemic hit ‒ but still well below the suicide rate during the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis that peaked at 8.59 per 100,000 population.
Sweeping across the globe, the coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc in every aspect of life, creating unprecedented economic hardships and negatively impacting people’s overall physical, mental and emotional health. Job losses, reduced income, loss of livelihoods, business closures, increased debts, isolation, untimely deaths, bereavement, and the overall mental fatigue have caused a great deal of stress and anxiety or worse, despair and depression. Depression, if left untreated, increases the risk for suicide and it is the most common underlying cause of suicide.
It’s no surprise that the pandemic further exacerbated Thailand’s suicide rate. In the first six months of 2020 amid the first wave of the pandemic, Thailand’s suicide rate rose by 22% from 2,092 to 2,551 suicides in the same period of the previous year, according to the Department of Mental Health. Day in and day out, we constantly read and hear in the news about desperate people across the country taking their own lives. Incidentally, the overexposure of suicide coverage in the news could add fuel to the fire for “copycat suicides”, or known scientifically as the “Werther Effect”. The bombardment and constant media coverage about suicides send harmful subliminal messages that can trigger suicide-prone individuals to take action, as they see it as an option to escape from the burden of their everyday lives.
As many people are grappling with pandemic-related stress, without a doubt crisis hotlines such as the Department of Mental Health’s 1323 hotline (Thai only) and the Samaritans of Thailand’s bilingual hotlines 02-713-6793 (Thai) and 02-713-6791 (English) are inundated with sudden barrage of calls.
To spread awareness about the existence of such suicide hotline, I reached out to the Samaritans of Thailand to learn more about the tremendous work they are doing for the community, especially now during the COVID-19 crisis. I was able to get in touch with the Chairman of the organisation, Trakarn Chensy, via email for an interview. Khun Trakarn has been with the Samaritans of Thailand since 1997. He has served as the organisation’s Director for four terms and is currently on his second term as the Chairman.
First of all, what is the Samaritans of Thailand? And could you tell us a brief history of the organisation?
Khun Trakarn: The Samaritans is headquartered in the UK. Our center in Thailand has been in operation for 42 years. The Samaritans of Thailand operates a call center for anyone who needs a sympathetic ear and emotional support, especially when they feel sad, lonely, depressed and suicidal. Our principal mission is suicide prevention. Each year we receive 10,000 contacts from callers on average. In addition to calling us, people can also contact us through our social media platforms via Facebook Messenger and Twitter direct messages. The call center is manned entirely by our trained volunteers. No one gets paid for doing this.
What types of support does the Samaritans of Thailand provide?
Basically we provide unconditional emotional support through active listening. We listen and converse with our callers non-judgmentally, empathetically, understandingly and we accept them unconditionally. We also reflect possible options for them to consider when they are looking for a solution to their problems. In the end, though, they are the ones to make the final decision.
Is the service provided confidential?
Yes, strictly confidential. Callers can always trust us that we do not disclose even the tiniest details of our conversation to anyone.
Who can call the hotline and what can they talk about?
Anyone can call and there’s no charge, except for the telephone fee that they pay to their phone service provider. We are a charity organisation and our service is free of charge.
The callers can talk about anything that they want to talk about.
Based on the calls that the Samaritans of Thailand received, what are the common reasons people contact the hotline?
Problems and difficulties they face due to interpersonal relationship problems and the resulting emotional pain they experience because of this. This comprises more than 50% of the contacts to our center.
How has COVID-19 affected the operation of the hotline center?
During the peak of the pandemic, we had to close the call center to protect our volunteers. However, we would never neglect our callers, so we set up a call-back service whereby callers can leave their phone numbers and our volunteers will call them back within 24 hours. The COVID-19 situation has also brought forth an astronomical increase in non-telephone contacts through Facebook Messenger and Twitter DM [direct message].
How many calls on average does the hotline center receive per month before the pandemic compared with during the pandemic? Does the center receive more pandemic-related calls nowadays?
On average we received about 10,000 contacts per year. That translates to about 830 contacts per month. During the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the contacts rose by three-fold for approximately three months before subsiding back to the average level.
Most of the pandemic-related calls we received were about the economic difficulties that our callers were facing due to the mandatory closure of businesses.
To your knowledge, what are the statistics and trends of suicide in Thailand in the past few years before the COVID-19 situation? What about during the height of the pandemic in 2020 until now?
According to the Ministry of Public Health’s official statistics, the country’s suicide rate is 6 per 100,000 people. So on average about 4,000 people in Thailand commit suicide successfully each year. The rate has been steady for the past decades. Although the figure for last year has not been released, we expect a significant rise in Thailand’s suicide rate as a result of the pandemic. (Note: this interview took place well before the publication of the 2020 suicide rate. The new figure was published at the time of this writing).
Why do you think the suicide rate skyrocketed during the pandemic?
Economic difficulties due to business closures and unemployment have made life very difficult for many Thais, and a large number of them have lost hope. COVID-19 also isolates a lot of people. The feelings of desperation and isolation are the principal causes that lead to suicide and suicidal ideation.
What are the warning signs of suicide?
Many suicidal people would express their suicidal thoughts verbally with phrases like “I feel so hopeless”, “Life is not worth living”, “I wish I were dead”, “If I were dead, no one would feel affected”, etc. Other warning signs include isolation, change in personality, and the loss of interest in things that used to interest them.
Is the hotline open 24 hours a day? If not, what happens if someone calls the hotline when it is not open? How quickly will you respond?
The real-time phone service is provided from 12 noon to 10pm daily. We also offer a call-back service where callers can leave their numbers for our volunteers to call back. Usually calls are returned within 24 hours. As I’ve already mentioned before, we also offer a chat service which is available almost around the clock.
Are all the volunteers Thai or do you have any non-Thai volunteers for the hotline in English?
At present all volunteers are Thais. The English service is provided by Thai volunteers who are fluent in the English language.
How do you recruit volunteers and what are the requirements to be a volunteer?
We publicise our recruitment through social media channels. The candidates are required to go through two full days of workshop on listening skill. After the workshop, there will be a screening process. If the candidates pass the screening, they will be required to undergo more intensive training with their mentors on a one-on-one basis once a week. The intensive training takes approximately four to six months on average before they are qualified to man the phone in the call center.
If someone wants to volunteer, what should one do?
Contact our office at 02-713-6790 or send a message to our Facebook page @Samaritans.Thailand.
Other than volunteering, how can we support the Samaritans of Thailand?
We are a non-profit organisation without income. We get by through generous donations by the public. Your financial contributions would be much appreciated. You can also help by publicising our service so that people in need of our help can be aware of how to reach us.
Are there any final thoughts you’d like to share?
Suicide and depression are a big national problem in Thailand. Suicidal people need emotional support and unconditional acceptance that they don’t feel they receive. We can all help prevent suicide by being good and caring listeners. Let’s work together to tackle this problem. If you want to learn more about us, please feel free to contact us:
Suicide is a serious public health concern and it is preventable as it comes with a lot of warning signs. Any early signs should not be dismissed or treated lightly. Awareness about suicide and its prevention is the crucial first step to start the conversation and understand about this intricate issue. Compassion and empathy are extremely vital in shattering the stigma surrounding suicide. Speak up. Seek help. There is always HOPE…
NOTE: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PSU Phuket and its employees or official policies of PSU Phuket.
Milla Budiarto is an international affairs officer at the International Affairs Centre, Prince of Songkla University (PSU) Phuket Campus. This article was featured in ’The Phuket Collegiate Magazine’, the university magazine published by Milla at PSU Phuket. For more information, visit: https://www.phuket.psu.ac.th/en/magazine or to share ideas with Milla email: firstname.lastname@example.org