I hate to break it to you, but the bitter truth is that someone you know might be considering suicide right now!
Mark was my uncle, my mother’s last brother. He was only two years older than me and because he grew up in my father’s house, we were very close. We shared a room and together, we learnt how to ride a motorcycle and to drive; we played hard and undertook every other boyhood adventure together, bonding nicely to fight off anyone we perceived was not on our side.
He was not really interested in education and learned a skill early; he was a spray painter and panel beater. Being a natural with his hands, he became known for his skills with motor body work within just a few years of freedom from his master. He only wished to get more modern equipment for his work.
He was genial yet quite taciturn and, as the years passed, he exhibited an increasing sense of contentment with his earnings but at the same time remained extremely dedicated to his work. Due to his pleasant demeanour and witty jibes, I often mused that Animpuye, as we fondly called him, could share a room with the devil – and they would never quarrel!
And then one day, he hanged himself on a tree at my grandfather’s backyard! It was especially devastating for me because, without ceremony, his body was quickly buried in the backyard like a stray dog, beside that tree – and then the tree was cut down. This is the sinister response to suicide in my community of Obudu, Cross River State; the victims are blamed for their death and neither honoured nor mourned.
Uncle Mark’s death was even more devastating for me because I did not get to see the body nor witness the burial. So for years I replayed our experiences and wondered if he had truly died. For months, I suffered through the trauma of constantly imagining that he was soon going to return from wherever he had gone – and then returning to the reality that he was indeed gone. The question gnawed at the fringes of my heart, ‘What could we have done to prevent his death?’
A year prior to his death, Mark had suddenly left his business, disappearing from town for a long while. We later found out that he had relocated to Ondo State and was working in the cocoa plantations there. It was hard to fathom the meaning of this action at a time when his peers were all envious of his skills and when it had become a settled notion in people’s minds that he would become completely self-reliant and prosperous in a couple of years. We could easily picture the life of slavery he was living in those plantations, working for exploitative farm owners!
Suddenly, he returned to Obudu, as taciturn as an owl! He would sit alone in his room and stare, trance-like, not speaking for whole days. He would neither eat nor drink for days and, of course, he would not go to work! He was unreachable in that invisible cocoon and if anyone tried to break into his reverie, he would react violently. Once, he picked up a machete and chased dad out of the room for trying to get him to eat.
As my dad tried to get medical help, well wishers began to pray, trying to deliver him from demonic oppression because they thought the young man must be having spiritual problems. It was easy to think of what was going on as spiritual when we learnt that something had gone wrong in Ondo where he may have become involved in some voodoo to get rich quickly. But there were those who rather thought that some forces of evil from his village were after his life to take it. No one knew for sure what was wrong and we were never able to actually verify either of these stories.
Though I have not spoken or written about this situation for all these years, I am now compelled by the repeated occurrences of suicides to do so. Some of the victims are rich or successful in their chosen careers, others are young, in the prime of their lives and expected to be without a care in the world, yet something is wrong enough, strong enough, to make them want to take their own lives.
Whatever is responsible for the flurry of suicides, the solutions lie within us as individuals and as a society! I strongly believe that mental illness will respond to any one of these solutions – spiritual, medical or social therapy.
The World Health Organization, WHO, has estimated that each year, approximately one million people die from suicide, which means that one death by suicide occurs every 40 seconds! Suicide is also said to be the second leading cause of death among 15-29 year olds globally. While this data may be reliable, the actual number of suicides is probably higher. This staggering statistics serve as a motivation for those who care about the wellbeing of their society to swing into redemptive action.
It is obvious that psychiatric health is yet to receive adequate attention in Nigeria. People are not exposed to sufficient information about mental health and there are few places they can go in case of psychiatric emergencies. In a country of nearly 200 million people, there are less than ten psychiatric hospitals, less than twenty departments of psychiatry in medical schools and teaching hospitals, and only about 150 practicing psychiatrists! Cross River State has one psychiatric hospital; most states do not even have a single such facility! According to Rahman Lawal, the Medical Director of the Federal Neuropsychiatric Hospital (FNH), Mental health services are concentrated in the southern urban areas with few in the north and no services at all in rural areas. Nigeria has a ratio of mental health bed of 0.4 per 100,000 persons! The need for mental asylums for the treatment of serious mental disorders such as clinical depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder remains on the rise.
I say this with caution: it seems like a territorial spirit of suicide is brooding over Nigeria! Or how do you explain the sudden escalated spate of suicides in the last few weeks? This week alone, I have read of four; one of them a pastor, a spiritual leader in his own right who should have been counselling troubled souls but who is said to have killed himself to either escape financial difficulties or some scandal. It hurts me even more to read social media comments from church folks who blame him for his own death and attribute it to his being full of pride or for living beyond his means. How unfeeling can people get!
Of course, most Christians have clearly departed from the spiritual call for them to serve, love and comfort one another; people are growing more self-centred as the days go by. This is not strange as St. Paul already warned that in the last days people will grow selfish and become lovers of themselves alone. The new trend now is for young Christians to relocate to the virtual world of social media and mingle with thousands of ‘friends’ there. But some have found that, more often than not, those people are not truly friends; they are not really there, neither are they what they claim to be! So, they may slip back into a dreadful loneliness.
Christians watch their wounded soldiers die daily. There is no doubt in my heart that some of these deaths could have been avoided if members of the body of Christ could respond to one another as Christ desired for His church – with grace rather than judgment! And there is no doubt in my mind that some victims of suicide are simply obeying the powerful voices of demons in their heads that command them to drink poison, slip their heads through a noose or jump off the roof.
If you ask why people would want to kill themselves, one of the most popular answers you will get is ‘Depression’, a mood disorder that causes a person to feel an overwhelming sense of sadness, isolation and despair that affects how a person thinks, feels and functions. The condition may significantly interfere with a person’s daily life and may prompt thoughts of suicide. There are many ordinary causes of depression – guilt, anger, rejection by a lover, physical or sexual abuse, business failure, use of alcohol or drugs, etc.
I think that we can reverse the tide of depression by responding in a helpful manner to our friends, family, partners and colleagues who may be entertaining suicidal thoughts. Depression is preventable, treatable and manageable. We can begin by approaching mental health issues logically, rather than the prevailing preference to immediately ascribe every mental illness to spiritual or superstitious sources.
We have often made the mistake of thinking that suicide ends with the death of the person. It doesn’t. Rather, suicide leaves grievous, deep, far-reaching and long-lasting wounds in the lives of loved ones who are left behind. First of all, society tends to place a stigma on families and friends of people who die by suicide. Also, while it may create extreme feeling of guilt in some family members that they could not prevent the suicide, it creates feeling of frustration and failure in others who may be defeated in the thought that someone they loved deeply felt unloved. As a result, people who have lost loved ones to suicide feel depressed, anxious and even contemplate suicide themselves!
Churches control a vast generality of Nigeria’s population! Therefore, if pastors should take courses in counselling, they would contribute greatly to the reversal of this suicide tide seeing that their members have not been spared. Pastoral counselling and inductive Bible study aimed at increasing members’ skills in dealing with the details of life should be given priority rather than focus on materialism and success which tends to increase great expectations, feelings of anxiety and fear in the minds of their followers.
Finally, I recommend that government and well-meaning organizations invest in awareness campaigns that focus on mental health. Most Nigerians do not know what a psychiatric hospital is! They think it is a place for the MAD and as a result never feel the need to have their mental health checked. In fact, people would even be ashamed to reveal that a relative of theirs was treated in a mental facility because their friends and associates might question their own sanity.
Believe it or not, someone you know might be considering suicide right now!