Letter: Suicide: not a personal tragedy, but a societal problem

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Dear Editor,

The report that a young woman, Ashana Sikandar, 21, of Number 71 Village Corentyne, Berbice, died by suicide in the room shared by herself and husband on Monday September 20, 2021 has given rise to grave suspicion about the real cause of death.

Ashana was cremated on Friday September 24, 2021, just two weeks after “World Suicide Prevention Day”, in which the theme was “Creating Hope through Action.”

Ashana’s death by suicide has evoked outrage among segments of the Guyanese population, who also expressed anger at Ashana’s mother-in-law. Ashana was shortly due to visit her parents at Mon Repos, but was apparently refused permission for that trip by her mother-in-law, according to her father Victor Sikandar.

Social media commentators are calling upon the authorities to launch a probe into Ashana’s death. Ashana’s father is calling for an investigation, too. One person who is close to the family suggests foul play. However, to blame someone for an alleged deviant act without having any authentic information is not the way to proceed. An investigation would hopefully get closer to the truth.

The death of Ashana also highlights vividly the level of abuse of women, particularly within families. It also reveals the gradual breakdown of the traditional family structure and values. An abused woman finds it exceedingly difficult to escape from a hostile and abusive environment, as well as from the economic dependence upon her husband/partner, particularly when they have children born out of the relationship.

If one says hypothetically that Ashana took her own life, then it is likely that she was overwhelmed with social and psychological problems. And whether in-laws were up to the challenge could not be determined.

Notwithstanding the death by suicide suggests an unstable and explosive home situation, the trouble is that most abused persons are afraid to tell their stories, because of “shame” and because of threats by their partners.

To cope with stressful life situations also afflicts many single persons, who find rejection, loss of status, isolation, and cultural pressures almost unassailable. These are the major factors contributing to suicide and attempted suicide.

Rejection, for example, was the main factor that accounted for the lives of two young lovers, whose alliance was rejected by the young man’s parents. Loss of status is exemplified by the two dismissed sugar workers who took their lives because they felt socially inadequate as they could no longer provide the material support for their respective families. Their self-esteem was crushed, something into which they had been enculturated.

The pattern and contributory factors of suicide could help to determine risk factors and guide intervention strategies. In Guyana, data on suicide that have been analysed show some interesting features: (i) more men (3x) than women take their lives (suicide); (ii) more women than men attempt to take their lives (attempted suicide); (iii) for the act of every suicide, there are at least 6 attempts at suicide; (iv) suicide and attempt mainly occur in rural/villages; (v) most suicides and attempts are by persons below 40 years; (vi) most common methods of suicide and attempt are ingestion of weedicides/herbicides and hanging; (vii) suicide/ attempt may be spontaneous or planned; (viii) ready access to cell phones and transportation reduces suicide fatalities; (ix) most victims of suicide and attempts are East Indians (75%); (x) and most suicides and attempts are linked to rejection, loss of status, isolation, and cultural pressures.

A crucial point is that many suicides and attempts are linked to mental illness. In the United States, for example, more than 30% of all suicides/attempts are linked to the mental illness called bipolar disorder. The Guyana data that was perused does not have this type of information, but Psychiatrist Dr Bhairo Harry might have such data on bipolar and other mental illnesses. More research is needed in this area.

As part of its programme to lessen frustration and create hope among vulnerable groups, and thus reduce suicide/ attempt, the Human Services Ministry has instituted various measures, including the Women Innovation and Investment Network (WIIN) and rendering special assistance to groups at risk. It is not clear if the PPPC Government would restore the Gatekeepers’ Program as well as re-establish the National Commission on Suicide Prevention.

Human Services Minister Dr Vindhya Persaud has always shown a passion for the suicide problem. In 2016, for example, she tabled a motion in Parliament to de- criminalise suicide/attempt, but it was rejected by the PNCR Government.

Victims of suicide and attempt have no constituency, and it is imperative therefore for the Government to play a leading role in suicide prevention. NGOs could become active partners if they are provided with necessary resources. Suicide should not be viewed as a personal tragedy, but instead as a societal problem. One suicide is one too many.

Sincerely,
Dr Tara Singh