Tag Archives: suicide

Suicide and shame in Malawi

Newspaper Suicide

Malawi’s Nation on Sunday reports on the mysterious suicide of 24-year-old Robert Chasowa, a student and political activist. Photo by Nina Lex.

As I walked to work, the headlines of Malawi’s daily papers caught my eye: “Poly Student Commits Suicide.”

I stopped mid-step, shocked and stared wide-eyed at the gruesome photograph of the young man’s dead body splashed across the front page.

In Canada, it’s an unwritten rule that journalists aren’t supposed to report on suicides: “News media increasingly may not report the cause of death; or officials may not release information on the cause or manner of death, citing respect for the privacy of families,” according to the Canadian Journalism Project.

The Canadian Psychiatric Association also states that journalists should avoid putting the word “suicide” in the headline, giving details of the method used and the media should avoid photos of the deceased, avoid admiration of the deceased, avoid front page coverage, and avoid repetitive and excessive coverage. Many of the association’s recommendations can be adopted as journalistic guidelines.

While the act of suicide in Malawi remains taboo, suicide cases are often smeared across the pages of the country’s newspaper. Tabloidization of a suicide victim’s family, personal details and death are reported on without afterthought. Photographs and suicide letters are also printed.

Families and communities are often shamed after a death because of how the media reports on suicide, explained Kenneth Mtaso executive Director of Young Voices, a community–based organization (CBO) that works to protect and promote the rights of youth in Malawi.

Attempting and committing suicide is illegal in Malawi and is treated as a criminal offence rather than a social issue. Section 229 of the penal code states, “any person who attempts to kill himself shall be guilty of misdemeanor.”

This law brings further shame to families of those who try to take their own lives.

“If you are caught trying to kill yourself you go to prison. It can be a jail sentence between four and five years.  The police look at the forces that contributed to your suicide and then decide the length,” said Mtaso. “However, this isn’t effective because most people will disregard all punishment to commit suicide.”

There are no definitive statistics or data on how many people commit suicide or attempt suicide and are jailed in Malawi; however, it is believed that the number is growing as the country faces more challenges, such as increasing levels of poverty.

With over 70 per cent of Malawians living on less then a dollar, poverty is an instigator that leads to suicide in Malawi.  Poorer rural areas are more at risk for suicides, as there are greater cultural pressures and stigmatization to face there, explains Mtaso.

“In the villages people marry younger making them more susceptible to suicide. Also teen pregnancy is big factor in youth suicide,” said Mtaso. “Because of the stigma surrounding reproductive issues in Malawi, especially in rural areas, middle-aged women who are having trouble conceiving sometime commit suicide because of the pressures to have a baby.”

About 80 per cent of Malawi’s population lives in rural areas.

While there is less pressure on urban youth to marry and have children, alcohol and drugs leads to more youth suicides in Malawi’s major cities.

According to UNICEF, the adult HIV prevalence rate in Malawi in 2009 was 11 per cent, which also contributes to suicide in Malawi.

Young Voices has been offering advice for troubled youth, who are at risk of suicide in Malawi, Zimbabwe and South Africa since 1997.

“We try to emphasize that just because you live in poverty doesn’t mean it’s the end,” said Mtaso. “Young people have a responsibility to protect themselves and value life.”

Alternative Medicine in Ghana Part Three: The Crime of Killing Yourself

Dr. Sammy Ohene, left, says people who attempt suicide should be treated in hospitals, not jails

As if being depressed to the point of trying to commit suicide isn’t bad enough, imagine being arrested and locked up for it.

Attempting suicide is illegal in Ghana according to Section 57 (2) of the 1960 Criminal Code, which classifies efforts to take one’s own life as a criminal offence. It’s a sanction that only aggravates the problems that lead patients to self-harm in the first place, according to Dr. Sammy Ohene, Head of Psychiatry at Ghana Medical School.

“The pressing issue should be dealing with your depression, not furthering your woes by prosecuting you for being ill,” he says. “I think it’s absolutely wrong. It shows a lack of understanding in the mechanisms behind suicide attempts.”

Dr. Ohene says he’s seen people imprisoned from six months to two years for trying to take their own lives. The stigma of imprisonment adds to the shame of attempting suicide in a country where it’s a taboo subject.

“They can even feel they deserve punishment,” says Dr. Ohene. “One thing you feel when you are depressed is guilt. It might worsen their symptoms or make them more likely to feel that there is indeed no hope for them.”

The law criminalizing attempted suicide was inherited from colonial British rule and Dr. Ohene feels the time has come to take if off the books. He’s one of several mental health professionals who make up the Network for Anti Suicide and Crisis Intervention, a group lobbying the Minister of the Interior to repeal the law.

Currently, however, the campaign faces challenges from traditional Ghanaian culture. Suicide is a dirty word in this country, to the point that it’s not used as a cause of death by coroners, who opt for the more palatable euphemism, “unnatural causes.”

Patients are often too ashamed to admit they have suicidal thoughts.
”They are even not very likely to talk about it with a doctor,” Dr. Ahene says. “You have to drag it out of them because they believe it’s totally wrong to even think about the subject.”

That makes it difficult for the medical community to know how grave the problem of suicide is in Ghana, but it appears serious. One study recently surveyed 4,500 students in three Accra secondary schools. It found that one third of the students have considered suicide as a way to escape their problems.

Dr. Ohene was surprised by the results.
”I didn’t imagine that for so many people, this was a considered option,” he says.

The treatment of mental diseases in Ghana is decades behind that of the developed world, which treats it as a mental health issue, not a criminal one. Ghana’s justice system has been slow to realize that people with mental health problems need treatment, not jail time.

Dr. Ohene and his colleagues are pushing to update Ghana’s laws to bring them closer to a modern understanding of suicide and mental illness in general.

“That’s a world of difference between treatment and going to jail for being ill,” he says. “I think it’s completely uncivilized that if someone is ill, we should punish them.”

Suicide Criminals

HIV/AIDS has made death a part of daily life, contributing to increased rates of suicide across sub-Saharan Africa.

The self-immolation of the Manda family in an impoverished Blantyre slum has been grabbing headlines in Malawi for weeks. Many commentators here have been mulling over why the siblings made their fatal pact. But far more concerning to me is the way 19-year-old Maria Manda, the sole survivor of the blaze, was treated after being rescued. Attempted suicide is a misdemeanour offense in Malawi, punishable by two years imprisonment with hard labour. Once pulled from the fire, Manda was duly arrested and charged for her transgression. She pleaded guilty in court.

Coming from Canada, where we speak of suicide victims, the prosecution of Manda as a criminal seems to me an unusual punishment for a non-crime. Here in Malawi, however, suicide is uncritically accepted as against the law, a criminal offense rather than a social issue.

While I was surprised by Manda’s arrest, Davie Chingwalu, the press officer for the Malawi police in Blantyre, was equally surprised by my questioning of the criminalization of attempted suicide.

“Yes, it’s illegal,” said Chingwalu, his eyebrows arched in surprise. “How else do you deal with someone who deliberately takes a life?”

The police could not provide statistics on how many people are arrested for attempted suicide each year in Malawi. (The national police spokesperson, Willy Maluka, said that compiling such statistics is time-consuming as it is done by hand. I actually believe the police on this one—I have personally seen the hand-drawn graphs of the 2010 crime rates at Blantyre’s police headquarters.) But Chingwalu acknowledges that the police pursue such cases when they are brought to their attention.

While attempted suicide, which was decriminalized in Canada in 1972, remains illegal in many countries, most of these countries do not bother expending resources on prosecuting people who pose a danger to themselves, not others. There is a tacit acknowledgement of the failed logic in punishing someone whose despair warps life into a torture worse than death.

In Malawi, adherence to the letter of the law means that people like Maria Manda will face “justice” rather than sympathy—or help. This attitude towards suicide needs to be openly discussed and criticized, particularly when studies show that suicide has become a parallel epidemic to HIV/AIDS.

Though there is not data for Malawi specifically, studies carried out in South Africa link increased suicide rates in sub-Saharan Africa to the rise of HIV/AIDS. According to South Africa’s National Center for Health Statistics, the rate of fatal poisonings—ingesting agricultural pesticides—is by far the most common method of suicide in sub-Saharan Africa, increasing fivefold during the 1990s, when the HIV/AIDS epidemic was rapidly spreading. Extend such numbers to Malawi, a country similarly afflicted by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and you’ll likely find a consequent rise in suicide, which makes the decriminalization of suicide an important issue for legislators. Chasing after “criminals” driven by disease, despair and desperate circumstances to take their own lives makes little less sense, particularly in one of the world’s  six poorest countries. Money expended on prosecuting suicide criminals could instead go towards treating the underlying social ills that plague the country.

I cannot say what kind of problems Maria Manda faced that drove her and her siblings to seek absolution in death. But forcing her to stand trial for the attempt to take her life does not address these problems and, worse, can only exacerbate her despair. We should be questioning the logic of a system that punishes a young woman’s grief-driven angst.

Discussing Sensitive Issues “Up Front”

"Up Front" with Precious Mercy

Saturday evenings at Kapital Radio are very busy for us. As I mentioned in one of my previous blogs, in addition to working on Mufty’s radio show “Know Your Rights” from 4-6 pm, we are also working on our colleague Mercy’s show “Up Front” from 8-9 pm. Her show is geared mainly towards youth and the topics include a variety of social issues. This week we discussed suicide and the factors influencing someone to commit suicide, following two highly-publicized stories in Ghanaian media. A 62 year-old well-respected Head Pastor of the Calvary Baptist Church in Kwadaso Nzema in Kumasi, Rev. Opoku Agyeman, allegedly shot and killed himself, and a 9 year-old-boy hung himself in the Amoamo community of the Ashanti Region after his mother threatened to punish him.

The panelists, Reverend and Spiritual Counsellor, Paul Chuks Udemba and Ghana Education Service (GES) Regional Guidance and Counselling Coordinator, Joe K. Koramteng, both had many interesting points to make about the public’s sentiments towards suicide and suicide prevention in Ghana.

Koramteng started by saying “All people are susceptible to suicide,” and listed psychological factors; such as irrational thoughts; social factors such as traumatic life events, loss of jobs and loved ones; unhealthy lifestyle choices such as drug and alcohol abuse; serious ailments such as HIV/AIDS; and abuse as the major factors. “There is always an underlying reason,” he said, adding that suicidal or mentally disturbed people are often generally written off as being “mad.”

Rev. Chuks Udemba offered a religious perspective and suggested that suicidal people are influenced by the “Spirit of Death.” They are overwhelmed by feelings of despair, which he claimed can be prevented through prayer, deliverance and counselling. Whether you hold religious beliefs or not, the importance of counselling and engaging suicidal and depressed people in open discussions about their problems was stressed by both our panel guests. Nevertheless, they also expressed their concerns about the misconceptions and stigmas surrounding suicide and depression in Ghana, as well as the lack of established trust they claimed Ghanaians have in each other.

I am reminded of a previous segment of “Up Front” when we discussed the benefits of “keeping a true friend.” We were surprised by our callers’ rather negative overall conclusion- it is not possible to keep a true friend because you can never truly trust anyone outside of your family.  However, in modern day Ghana (mostly in urban areas) where people are not as dependent on kinship ties and live more individualistic lives, seeking the support of trustworthy friends and talking out your problems with non-family members is very important, as Koramteng suggested. “Counsellors are also there to support suicidal people, but there is the [mis]conception that they only deal with marriage and relationship issues,” he said.

Although we did not receive as many calls or text messages from our listeners as we have on previous shows discussing more pleasant topic matter like love and relationships, I am very glad we examined suicide this week. Those who did call in had the chance to share their personal stories, struggles and feelings, and thanked Mercy for covering the sensitive topic. It is important to have public dialogue about unpleasant topics like suicide and the social stigmas that surround them. Open discussions encourage people to speak out and get the help they need. “Whatever the problem is with anyone, suicide is not an option. Whatever you are going through, someone else has already gone through it,” said Rev. Chuks Udemba.