Over the last three weeks, we have had reports of seven people committing suicide including two young female undergraduates from two of the country’s top public universities and a 14-year-old Primary Five pupil of Aggrey Primary School in Achimota, a suburb of Accra. Following a lot of public outcry, the Mental Health Authority has quickly moved in to set up a temporary helpline for those contemplating suicides to call in for help.
Last year, in 2016, there were several reported cases of people committing suicide either by hanging, drinking poisonous substances or shooting themselves, sometimes leaving notes behind.
Casting my mind back, 2010 was also another disastrous year with media reports on quite a number of suicide cases. I remember reports where in one week alone in July that year, we had three people, including a nine-year-old class two pupil, committing suicide.
There could be many more cases around the country of people taking their own lives for one reason or the other that do not come to media attention. One wonders what could be driving people, as young as nine years, to take their own lives?
In a recent interview with the Daily Graphic and captured in the 14th March, 2017 edition of the paper, Dr. Akwasi Osei, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Mental Health Authority (MHA) is reported to have attributed as much as 95 percent of attempted or completed cases of suicide to mental illness.
According to Dr. Osei, 80 percent out of the 95 percent cases was due to depression, while 15 percent was as a result of other mental illnesses including bipolar, schizophrenia, acute stress reaction, alcohol or drug abuse.
Some of the causes as stated above remind me of a suicide case I read about in one of the British tabloids of a high profile multi-millionaire who, before killing himself, killed his wife and only daughter in their downstairs family room, set their plush Victorian mansion on fire and then quickly went upstairs to kill himself. The fire service arrived in time to retrieve the CCTV camera in the house which the millionaire failed to switch off before the multiple crimes.
In the course of investigations, it was discovered that the man was in deep financial crises. His businesses had gone under and his property was going to be re-possessed. He had apparently kept things secret from his wife and could not bear to see their mansion taken over. The intense stress, the fear of losing a profligate lifestyle and the humiliation in society that was to come with all that, led him to end it for his family and himself.
So, suicide tendencies have no respect for status or age. The wealthy could be prone, so also the ordinary in the society. Children, the youth, adults, the old, men and women are all at risk.
I recall a conversation I had with Dr. J. B. Asare, a Psychiatrist and owner of Peace Be Clinic at Ashale Botwe, a suburb of Accra a few years back on suicides, he told me that many a time, people who commit suicide suffer from severe depression where there are prolonged circumstances of extreme stress, emotional upset, abuse, poverty, neglect and poor health, especially where there is no apparent hope of improvement.
Dr. Asare said in certain cases, there are genetic predispositions where suicidal tendencies run through a family. In cases like that, members of the family will go through taking their own lives at some stage.
I learnt from the conversation that in the case of people suffering from severe depression, they seem to live in a world where guilt has engulfed them. They feel guilty for every wrong they have done and so feel that ending it would be the easy way out. Because they do not love themselves, they have the notion that people do not love them. They easily get upset and would cry unnecessarily. At some point they become withdrawn, they refuse to eat and sleep does not come very easily to them. They begin to compare dying and living and conclude dying is the best way out.
But apart from the causes above, there are experts who also say that there are other precipitating factors including medical conditions such as impotency, sudden fatal illness, incurable diseases and chronic pain. There are also social upsets such as the death of a dear one, marital and relationship issues, such failures as in school or examinations, loss of a job, honour and respect, can all drive suicidal tendencies.
How common then is this disturbing mental condition which drives people to take their own lives? Though suicides may not be too common in Ghana especially where we do not have any statistics to dwell on, in America for example where the statistics are available, an official data puts it that about 31,000 cases of suicide are recorded each year. That works out to 83.7 cases per day and one suicide every 17 minutes. Suicide is in fact ranked as the eighth highest cause of death in America.
One may argue that Ghana is far from the statistics put out from advanced countries. That may be so now but we should not close our minds to the fact that we are fast losing the closeness and warmth that our society used to enjoy. In the past, there was more altruism. People sacrificed for each other. Neighbours looked out for each other even to the extent that a neighbour could discipline another neighbour’s child if they found him or her misbehaving in the community. Today, in the era of human rights and child abuse activism, one dares not. Our social system has lost some of its values. People have become very individualistic and increasingly, smart phones and the internet have taken the place of personal face to face humanness in conversations. You see people at social gatherings or at restaurants and they are busy on their smart phones rather than chat to others.
The cases of suicide that have reared their heads recently must point us in a direction that we need to place some emphasis on mental health going forward. The Mental Health Authority is thankfully well in place and will be of tremendous assistance us as we seek ways of helping people with mental distress adjust to life.
However, even more critical is the role individuals can play be it in our homes, work places, Churches or Mosques or better still in the larger community. We all can do a lot to assist friends, relations, and colleagues when they begin to exhibit signs that something is wrong with them, emotionally or otherwise We need to love more and be concerned for people who suddenly become withdrawn and feel lonely.
There is every reason for the country to keep an eye on the various mental disorders that are driving people to take their own lives. If we do not, one day things may get out of hand.
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