Sadly, we have recently witnessed various publicly reported cases of suicide in some National Dailies, which has sparked widespread discussions. Some of the expressed views appear to consider suicide as a strange and new development. But is this truly new or are we witnessing an epidemic of suicide deaths? Traditional folklore has it that the legend of Sango, the god of thunder in Yoruba history committed suicide, following a tragic sequence of losses. A similar pattern is described by Chinua Achebe, with reference to Okonkwo in his classic work of fiction, ‘Things Fall Apart’. Thus, the concept of death being a preferable option to shame, humiliation and feelings of hopelessness in the face of adversity is not completely new. It is also very likely that these events have always occurred but were not widely reported.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 1 million suicide deaths occur every year. This number is staggering, especially when we appreciate that there are several regions of the world – such as Nigeria and other developing countries, which do not have accurate death records and a reporting system. Thus, this WHO figure is undoubtedly a gross underestimate. To put this in perspective, this figure translates into one suicide death, every 40 seconds. And in the time, it has taken for you to read this article up until this point, at least 2 human beings somewhere on this planet, would have intentionally taken his or her own life. The number of attempted suicides annually, is about 20 times the number of completed suicides – estimated at 20 million cases worldwide.
Why would anyone consider ending his or her own life?
Several risk factors predispose to suicide, but what is consistent is that such individuals experience such intense and overwhelming emotional pain that they simply feel that they can no longer cope. The commonest risk factor is depression. This is a mental health disorder, which occurs when certain levels of chemicals in the brain are very low. The chemicals involved, are responsible for improving our mood and making us feel good about ourselves. Thus, when the levels are low, affected individuals feel sad, miserable, hopeless and worthless. They may also feel overwhelmed by the problems (real or imagined) that confront them and therefore, begin to imagine that they have become a burden to their families and loved ones. It is with the background of these types of thoughts, that death becomes an appealing outcome, in the face of such overwhelming problems.
Other risk factors include negative life events such as job or financial losses, death of loved ones, shame and public loss of dignity, loneliness, impulsiveness, and access to means. Males are also at greater risk, as suicide is thrice as common among males as compared to women. Mental illness, chronic physical illness, alcohol or drug abuse, and overwhelming emotional distress may also increase the risk for suicide.
Impact of suicide
It has a devastating impact on surviving family members, friends and colleagues. They often undergo a lot of emotional turmoil, with feelings of guilt, betrayal, regret and feelings of inadequacy – with thoughts such as “if only I had been a more observant/caring/prayerful/dutiful parent, spouse, friend or colleague; perhaps this would not have happened.” Thus, in addition to the grief of mourning their loved ones, they also have to cope with these feelings of regret and inadequacies. Their misery is often worsened by the stigma and shame of being ridiculed as the family member of someone who committed suicide. Moreso, as some people will insinuate that the spouse/friend/family/colleagues must have done something to push them to their wits end, or at best, were not supportive enough. These sorts of insinuations are not helpful at all and should be actively discouraged.
How can we help?
The family and friends of individuals who have completed suicide are going through a lot of emotional stress and require us to show empathy and understanding, as well as provide emotional support to help them come to terms with the tragedy that has befallen them. We should help to ease their pain; and not compound it. If their symptoms of distress do not abate after a few weeks, they may need to see a mental health professional for expert help.
Suicide is a common but tragic occurrence, which negatively affects everyone connected with the affected individual. Several risk factors acting together may increase the chances of suicide occurring. However, it is preventable and in the next session, we shall be focusing on prevention strategies for suicide.