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Saving Russians from suicide

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Medics and NGOs are joining forces to tackle Russia's staggering suicide rate ­ the sixth highest in the world ­ aiming for social programs and crisis centers to address social and psychological problems plaguing men in particular, who are most likely to commit suicide. And attitudes seem to be changing among people seeking psychological help.

Recently released figures on the suicide rate in Russia show that over 800,000 people took their lives between 1991 and 2011 ­ and men aged between 45 and 56 die from suicide seven times more often than women of the same age group.

According to data gathered by the Serbsky mental health institute in Moscow, the suicide rate dropped in recent years, but is still bigger than in most other countries, placing Russia the sixth in the world for suicides. The death rate from suicide fell almost twofold since 2002 and is now 23 deaths per 100,000 people, down from 43 deaths during the 1990's.

And experts at Moscow's Serbsky Mental Health Institute are developing a program to bring down the number of suicides in the country.

"We need to establish specific crisis centers, where people would come to get special care and treatment.

These anti-suicide services should not be treated as mental institutions, but merely as a place to get help, real professional help," Boris Polozhyi, head of Serbsky's epidemiology and social problems department, was quoted by Vzglyad as saying.

Psychological climate

Experts point to various reasons for a high national suicide rate. Aside from possible genetic factors and psychological illnesses, social circumstances and financial problems also play a key role. Considering major societal upheavals, it is not surprising that the problem of suicide in Russia had particularly deepened in the 1990's, experts say.

While Russia's overall rate for suicides is the sixth in the world, the country tops the list for teenage suicides ­ a particular problem given its aging population. Russian teenagers were four times more likely to die from suicide in Russia than in Europe, according to a UNICEF report published in 2010.

Family and psychological problems, as well as instances of abuse, caused most of the suicides among children, experts said.

"This is a global problem: loneliness among young people, inability to handle the adult world ­ that is the reason teenagers are committing suicide. But we are now living during a time when society is trying to help teens overcome the troubles in their lives," Marina Gordeyeva, Chairman of the Foundation to Support Children in Difficult Situations, told The Moscow News.

The foundation recently set up a helpline for children across Russia in order to offer psychological help for free at any time.

"We offer children an opportunity to talk to specialists and speak about the troubles in their lives for free, using landline or mobile phones in any region across the country,"

Gordeyeva said. Gordeyeva pointed out that it is not just childen making use of the helpline, but also adults who either seek help in understanding their kids, or generally need a specialist's psychological advice.

While such helpines are not new to Russia, the readiness with which people are asking for psychological help is increasing ­ which is indicative of people overturning the Soviet tradition of keeping their troubles on the inside and rarely seeking professional help.

"Some people believe that a helpline may serve as an invasion of family privacy, but it is not," Gordeyeva said. "[Psychological problems] can't always be resolved only with the help of family or friends ­ which is something that's often believed to be a cure-all."

According to Gordeyeva, children in Russia are more likely to make calls to helplines and seek psychological advice than adults.

"Kids do call our helpline, of course very often it's just for fun, but our specialists are trained to register whether this kid wants to talk for real reasons or not. They still listen to them, even if this is done for a joke, because it might turn out that a teen just doesn't know how to articulate the fact that they need help,"

Gordeyeva pointed out. Gordeyeva said that cultural factors affect Russia's adult population when it comes to dealing with psychological problems.

"When something hurts [physically] everyone knows there is a hospital to go to, but when it concerns psychological problems, there is no tradition of asking for help," Gordeyeva said. "This results in really serious psychological illnesses, and, sadly, suicide."

Government help?

More and more mental health and advisory centers are being opened across Russia, with some specialists hoping for more government involvement on the issue.

"President Dmitry Medvedev pointed out last year that the mental health of the nation is a priority, and we hope that the government will continue to help build more psychological centers," Gordeyeva told The Moscow News.

However, some experts still doubt that the government's role is that important ­ pointing out that major changes need to take place in society before the problem of psychological health is adequately addressed.

"As long as society does not turn to embrace psychiatry, it is impossible to win this fight for people's lives, no matter how much money the state spends on mental health care," Boris Polozhyi of the Serbsky Mental Health Institute said, RIA Novosti reported.

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