In addition to the roller coaster of events as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic making the headlines daily across the world, there seem to be a form of silence to other persistent pandemics besetting the global sphere like suicide. Let’s begin with an elementary definition. Suicide simply means ending one’s life typically as a way to escape pain or suffering- a constant reality. Some regard suicide as an individual signalling a call for help or the last call for help. Because really, an individual who makes the decision to take his life must have being calling for help, silently or aloud.
Research has admitted that this complex phenomenon can be triggered by a number of factors such as unemployment, mental or emotional health, loss of loved one or even perhaps the inability to discover one’s identity. But the wake of COVID- 19 disease gave more impetus by expediting the already rising cases across the globe. As a mater of fact, a vein of research work has shown the profound psychological and behavioral effects of COVID-19 on the population in just less than a year, while predicting its effect in the nearest future!
The correlation between the two pandemics
Chronic stress, insomnia, social isolation, substance abuse depression, anxiety and other psychological disorders are a few of the effects. And on the flip side, these aforementioned are associated with suicide and are even viewed as possible suicidal behaviors. So in essence, we observe a relationship between the both.
September 10th is celebrated annually as World Suicide Prevention Day. According to the International Association of Suicide Prevention, this day is observed to ‘provide the opportunity for people, across the globe, to raise awareness of suicide and suicide prevention’, simply indicating that it should be a unanimous effort of every individual irrespective of age, gender and social class. This preventable disease is regrettably the cause of about 800,000 deaths annually and the third leading cause of death amongst the youth specifically 15 to 19 years. The World Health Organization WHO also provides further perspectives by revealing that about 79% of the cases are from middle and low-income countries of which Africa takes a significant share
Nigeria, for instance, according to WHO, has the highest number of suicide attempts and cases in Africa, and a whopping 6th in the world! Hanging, pesticides poisoning, shooting are the leading triggers. Nigeria is followed by South Africa and Ethiopia, while these countries are coincidentally the 1st, 2nd and 7th largest economies in Africa as at 2019. In June 2020, in the midst of the government imposed lock-down in order to unanimously defeat the global enemy, the Guardian newspaper reported the case of a 39-year-old man, Chris Ndukwe, who first killed his 25-year- old girlfriend, Olamide Alli and then took his life. It was alleged that he stabbed his partner and took sniper insecticide thereafter for reasons unknown. This is one of the numerous needless life losses that make the headlines habitually. Not to mention the millions of people affected by suicide like the family members, friends, colleagues of the victims. Recall that snipers are illegal in Nigeria and it is still a wonder how they get to the stalls of supermarkets and even sold to the public.
The bottom up approach
In response to these alarming and hapless circumstances, Dr Alexandra Fleischmann, Scientist in the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse at WHO, noted that “effective measures can be taken, even just starting at a local level and on a small-scale”. So the concern should be what legislation is currently in place and if they are already archaic, what updated policies and comprehensive approach that reflect the culture and realities of our time are practical and inherent? We all come from a community, so how well are our communities involved in a concerted fight against this public health matter? The number of suicide cases is reaching its crescendo, this is therefore, a national call to action to address and squash this tragic public health issue afflicting the world especially the younger population.
The place of a national strategy
WHO, citing the efficacy of a national strategy elucidated that if adopted, would give a signal to the citizens that the government is committed to addressing the issue. They discovered that it is not only an indicator of a responsible government in handling the issue of suicide but displays their efforts in ‘providing leadership and guidance on the key evidence-based suicide prevention interventions’.
In 2019, there were just about 40 countries that had adopted national strategies for suicide prevention. Nordic countries like Finland, Sweden are examples of the countries and they have the lowest suicide cases in Europe, while a few African countries like Namibia are in the picture. These prevention strategies are designed to ‘identify vulnerable groups, improve the assessment and care of people with suicidal behavior, and improve surveillance and research. They also aim to raise awareness by improving public education.’
Our peculiar cultural realities
Whatever strategy is adopted by the government of a nation, it MUST reflect the cultural and social contexts of any nation-state. Such strategy must be ‘multisectoral, involving not only the health sector but sectors such as education, labor, social welfare, agriculture, business, justice, law, defense, politics and the media’ (WHO). Additionally, systematic frameworks must be put in place to provide clear objectives, patterns, performance indicators, budgeting etc. with a proper structure to monitor and evaluate results. Or else sustainability will be far from actualization.
The media can help by responsible reporting
While it is the responsibility of journalist and the media to provide factual information of issues of public concern, the approach of suicide news reportage must be regarded as sensitive as it actually is. The importance place of the media spurred this year’s World Suicide Prevention day’s theme dubbed- The role of the media in suicide prevention
To put this in perspective, a research paper published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal conducted an observatory study of 6,367 suicide articles between 2011 and 2014 in the Toronto Media Market and discovered that there is an unmistakable correlation between media reports and the rising suicide cases. Individuals can be influenced to end their lives or exhibit suicidal behaviors when they are exposed to sensitive media contents on suicide. Some of such sensitive approach include frontage story, misinformation, photo-shoots of the victim, too many details about the suicide case, ‘mono-causal (cause and effect) reporting style etc.
Consequently, guidelines that provide the pros and cons of reporting sensitive topics like suicide must be outlined and upheld in its highest degree. Journalists can draw the minds of their audience deliberately to narratives of individuals who are successfully coping after a failed attempt, articles that raise awareness about the risks involved, it’s prevention as well as stigma reduction.
Implementing early identification management plans
Suicide tendencies stem from certain behavioral patterns such as depression, isolation and other mental health problems which have unprecedentedly risen as a result of the global lock-down. Hence, early identification management cannot be overemphasized. This requires a concerted effort of the community, schools, government and most importantly the home.
The case of students academic performance
Speaking specifically about the educational institution, some published research works have highlighted the interrelationship between suicide behavior and academic behaviors amongst students chiefly between ages 10 and 19. Premium Times reported a sad story in April 2019 about a student who took his life as a result of his poor academic performance in two outstanding courses that delayed his graduation for two years. A poisonous substance claimed his life!
How do we curb this menace?
It is pertinent that students experiencing incessant difficulty in their academics be identified and followed up to avoid the risk of students committing self-slaughter. This can be achieved through the propagation of programs and initiatives that consistently address suicide prevention strategies and attempts. They can come in form of counselling centers or suicide crisis hotlines
Moreover, contained in the 5-year national strategy by the Government of Ireland from 2015–2020, one of her objectives was to ‘support local communities capacity to prevent and respond to suicidal behavior’. Adequately planned and coordinated community-centered stratagem can spur diverse protective benefits for families and individuals, which can actively contribute to a reduced risk of suicidal behavior.
Majority of the countries that have adopted the national strategy to their systems did not underestimate the capabilities of local communities in combating this global predicament including the Islamic Republic of Iran where they plan to ‘improve and maintain the response to suicidal behavior within the health and community-based services and ensure continuity of care’.
Conclusively, suicide is a non-communicable ‘disease’ that can be prevented by the concerted effort of all and sundry even in the wake of a global pandemic. If for any reason, we must remember that a victim of suicide has a family, is a friend and partner. The victim might also be someone you know!
This article was written for an NGO - Communal Health in commemoration of World Suicide Prevention Day