Suicide is the process of purposely ending one’s life. Some forms of suicide that are commonly reported include hanging, self-inflicted gunshot wounds, stabbing and burning oneself, taking poison, jumping from high points, drowning oneself or even crashing one’s car. Even though there are no official national records on the rate of suicides in Kenya, the World Health Organisation (WHO), through a research done in 2003, estimates that between the age of 15 and 24, there are 19.2 suicide deaths for every 100,000 males and 5.6 for every 100,000 females in Kenya.
The occurrence of reported suicide cases amongst young people is alarming and yet many cases go unreported because the subject is taboo in most cultures. It is worth noting that the majority of reported suicide cases among the youth happen amongst students in high schools, colleges and universities. Suicide this country is more rampant among the youth than adults and that is the worrying bit.
There are several examples of young people who have ended their lives in suicide. These cut across different ages, social-economic backgrounds, ethnic and religious groups. There is no evidence to show that the poor commit suicide more than the rich or vice versa. Simply put, suicide is unselective and this is why each one of us must be concerned.
Suicide amongst students…
In the recent past we have heard and read in several sections of the media cases of violence within relationships. This has in most cases resulted in deaths either through murder or suicide. We have also heard or read about many cases of suicide – football fanatics committing suicide for various reasons, young students in schools, universities and other institutions of learning, people in the armed forces using their guns, politicians, children of the wealthy – all choosing to end their lives and sometimes those of their loved ones.
In reality, the stigma associated with suicide makes the subject to be discussed in hushed tones. One university student we interviewed and who sought anonymity says, “There is a lot of pressure in our campuses to lead your life in a particular way. If one is not careful, campus life can be tricky especially if you lack any prior preparation or guidance from an adult. For instance, the pressure to be in a relationship is great, yet failed relationships are one of the key factors that contribute to most suicides.
A relationship gone sour often brings about feelings of betrayal and loss, which if not handled well may result in suicide.” She goes on to say, “Also there is pressure to engage in drugs and deviant sexual behaviour such as masturbation, lesbianism or homosexuality. In some instances it may start in ignorant ways all in the name of having a good time. The end result is often a serious problem that leaves one in self-reproach, which may weigh you down and suicide seems the easiest escape route.”
According to this student, most college students are overwhelmed by the freedom that comes with being in college. “Many people who have passed through college leave with a few regrets. For some, college was the time they got into a relationship – casual or serious and ended up losing their virginity in regrettable circumstances. Others got into reckless drinking and engaged in casual sex, got sexually transmitted infections, unplanned pregnancies and in some instances abortions, leaving them sorry and desperate hence committing suicide.
Generally, there is a lot of self discovery which can have adverse results in the end if not done in moderation,” she explains.
Suicide has taken a new trend in Kenya where teenagers between 13-15 years have increasingly resorted to it following what they term as failure in the national exams. This leaves them feeling worthless, depressed and incompetent.
For example, when the 2011 KCPE results were announced, the media reported several incidences of candidates who resorted to suicide when they did not perform as anticipated.
According to a parent in Nairobi who has a son and daughter in college, the social fabric is to blame for the rampant suicide tendencies.
The social structures in the society – the church, media, political leadership and the family seem dysfunctional, leaving the young people confused and without a support system. “In the past, whenever people lost hope they would unashamedly walk to their pastor, relatives, friends or whoever else they felt free to talk to. This is not the case anymore as parents sometimes get too busy for their children in the name of looking for money to keep their families well provided for, and some pastors have become too materialistic to offer any genuine help. Our society is also becoming more individualistic and hence most people suffer in silence,” says the parent.
Causes of suicide…
But what really makes one choose to end their life? According to John Gacheru, a counselling psychologist at The Growth Centre located at the Upper Hill Medical Centre, suicide indicates a battle within oneself. By the time one results to suicide, he has deep underlying problems for a prolonged period of time. John says that the three main causes of suicide are depression, deficiency of important coping skills, and family dysfunctions.
“Depression is the most undiagnosed problem among young people. Sometimes the caregivers or parents ignore signs in their children that could point to depression. Depression is largely
a mental illness, where the mind only focuses on the gloomy situations, hopelessness and despair.
Depressed people have a lot of negative energy – they are possessed with their body image and they have a tendency of seeing themselves less worthy and less qualified compared to others,”
John says, adding that if depression goes on for a long time without treatment it could lead to suicide.
“Some young people are deficient of key skills such as decision-making, negotiating and communications skills and thus are at a disadvantaged position when dealing with some situations. Family dysfunction such as divorce and separation affects people’s response to issues in life. Most of the young people who commit suicide do it with the mindset that they are punishing their parents. Other minor reasons for suicide are cases of bullying in school or holding a secret for too long, particularly cases of sexual molestations. If the family does not have an open channel of communication, the pain may become unbearable resulting to suicide,” he says.
Pastor Dick Shikuku, a youth pastor with Deliverance Church, Kasarani, is no stranger to cases of suicide amongst his flock. “Last week, I counselled a teenager who conteplated ending his life because of the recent Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) results. The teenager felt unworthy, unloved and hopeless when he did not attain the grade he had anticipated. Lack of affirmation from parents, feeling of inadequacy and low self-esteem are major causes of young people feeling desperate when they fail in their academics,” says Pastor Shikuku.
He also attributes some cases of suicide to demonic attacks, lack of mentorship and lack of knowledge on what God says about life in the bible. Cases of rejection and self-denial, low self-image, and lack of mentorship and parental guidance is also partly to blame for suicide.
However, Pastor Shikuku is quick to note that young people need to identify people they can open up to; they should also join support groups, which encourage accountability.
Suicide appears to be the last resort in a long line of unsuccessful efforts by the concerned person to reconcile with themselves. According to Angela Gills, a renowned writer and researcher, many young people who commit suicide feel rejected and alone, unappreciated and unloved.
The lot feels nobody among their teachers, parents and peers wants, needs or loves them.
“Their fear of failure and rejection becomes so great that they choose to face death rather than continue facing life,” says Gills.
A young woman who sought anonymity says that sometimes there are many unhappy situations at home such as alcoholism, unavailable parents, violence, marital conflicts, separation or divorce and lack of money that escalates cases of students committing suicide.
“Parents need to watch out for changes in academic performance and social status of their children. For example, your child may portray tendencies of the need to be alone or a drastic change in their daily behaviour, rudeness and a careless attitude. These are danger signs that something is amiss. If your child regularly complains of extreme fatigue, has decreased appetite, loses weight rapidly and is unable to concentrate, is truant, abuses drugs, portrays rebellion and destructive behaviour, his situation should be addressed to quickly,” she notes.
Treatment for suicidal thoughts and behaviours…
John advises that when dealing with adolescents, parents should always be involved. Involvement should not just be about doing homework together but it should deliberately involve spending time together and building a good relationship. “Teenagers will often dismiss parents who only tell them to keep off drugs and sex. If their children are not involved in either of these they will find their parents irrelevant,” he says.
Another solution, according to John, is for parents to embrace their children’s uniqueness without comparing them to others. “Parenting is a challenge and parents should attend parenting forums where they are able to share with other parents on their successes and failures. Seeking marriage therapy is also beneficial because a happy marriage will produce emotionally healthy children,” says John.
While he agrees that mental health is better for people who are religious than the atheists because of the coping mechanisms religion offers, he is quick to point out that many researches in America show that suicide is equally common among religious conscious families, as well those who are not necessarily religious.
The society, family, individuals and the church all have a role to play in curbing the suicide menace. Some practical ways include: setting up guidance and counselling departments in schools and the school administration promoting programmes to educate staff, students and parents. The teachers and parents have the capability of stemming the tide of the student suicide phenomenon.
Those who work with young people in various capacities, be it in church or in mentorship groups, should understand the complexities of teenagers and adolescent development and the multiple issues they must deal with. It is important to recognise the signs and symptoms of adolescent depression. Open channels of communication between parents and teachers should also be encouraged and nurtured.
“Parents should also make time for their children. Do not gamble with the precious lives of the youth since the greatest contribution to preventing this phenomenon is the steady, constant and deliberate building of self-esteem in our youths. Acceptance of them and our genuine care for them are the most effective antidotes we can give the youth against the terrible loneliness they often feel,” says Pastor Shikuku.
According to the pastor, getting spiritual leaders who are committed to help young people with programmes that are holistic in approach can bring a turnaround in their lives. He also adds that teachers should instill the principles of perseverance among students, while parents should strive to be present for their children. Having talk therapy that focuses on helping the person understand how their thoughts and behaviours affect each other is an effective approach for people with thoughts of harming themselves.