John*, (not his real name) was 15 when he committed suicide three years ago. He was found hanging from the ceiling in his room. He left a note saying he felt “neglected” by his parents.
As an only child to two successful professionals, John had everything a teenager would want. He went to an upmarket school and enjoyed unrestricted access to all the fancy gadgets his peers could only dream of. He also had, at his disposal, all the money someone his age could ever want. He was chauffer driven to and from school and had a spacious bedroom that was expensively furnished. He had everything to live for, or so it seemed, until he took his life.
Then there is Samuel*, who, at 19, was the envy of his male friends – he was intelligent, charming and popular with the girls. Martin set himself ablaze inside his parent’s home in one of Nairobi’s middle class suburbs. He doused himself with gasoline and struck a match after an altercation with his father over unauthorised use of the family car. He died on the way to hospital.
Nania* was only 16 when she started toying with the idea of committing suicide. She is 23 now, and has attempted suicide five times.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-29 year olds - 78 per cent of suicide-related deaths in 2015 occurred in low and middle- income countries. Kenya lies in this bracket.
Although there are no Kenya-specific statistics on teen suicide, it is apparent that a significant number of young people are taking their lives.
According to an article published in The Standard in 2015, in every 100,000 people who die in Kenya annually?, 3,000 of these are suicides.
An American publication, My health magazine, quotes a study published in 2012, where over 70 per cent of 458 patients admitted to Kenyatta National Hospital were reported to have intentionally ingested poison: these were between 21 and 30 years, and most were said to have been grappling with relationship problems.
WHO now concludes that suicide is a global epidemic, and there is therefore need for effective and evidence-based intervention at the population level, family and individual level.
So what would prompt a young person with a bright future ahead of him/her want to end it prematurely?
According to Eric Otieno, 29, founder of Fatuma’s Voice, a unique educational forum that uses art, poetry and music to address the needs of the youth, and also as tools for this group to express themselves, says that this happens when one’s sense of identity and worth is undermined and eroded.
“Youth are ill-equipped to handle the rapidly changing demands that life throws at them and are increasingly looking at suicide as an easy way out,” he says.
He should know because he is a survivor. Eric has struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts for as long as he can remember.
His depression was triggered by the violence he endured in his childhood.
“My father drank alcohol a lot; and was physically and emotionally abusive - I grew up watching my parents fight,” he says, an experience that threw him into a dark alley of sadness, and eventually suicidal thoughts. It wasn’t until recently that he finally put a name to this never-ending sadness. Depression.
“I experienced dark moods and thought a lot about ending my life. I would hide from people and speak to no one for long periods. I would not even clean my room or open the windows for days on end.”
He explains that at the darkest of these moments, there was always that little light inside that forced him to snap out of it. As the first born in a family of three children, he was concerned about his siblings. He felt that he needed to stay strong for them. This, Eric says, coupled with the support of his friends, are part of the reason he is alive today.
He is a writer and poet who uses his writing as a catharsis to fight the repressive moods, depression and suicidal tendencies.
He admits he is not out of the woods yet. His most recent episode with depression happened in January this year when he lost a dear friend. This friend committed suicide.
Drawing from his own story, as well as those of his friends, he recognises and is concerned about the increasing number of young people that are choosing death over life.
This is why, through Fatuma’s Voice, poetry, music and spoken word, he has dedicated his time and energy, his life in fact, to creating awareness around the issues driving youth to suicide.
Depression, he says, is a key factor, coupled with peer pressure, pressure from parents to be a certain way, and the widening gap between parents and their children.
“Parents are too busy living their own lives to know what is going on in their children’s lives, while some try too hard to create the ideal world for their children and fail,” he explains, even though he is careful not to blame parents and caregivers for the desperation that a big number of youth today feel.
He is convinced that premature death, (say that triggered by drug abuse, and suicide) depression and other mental health issues afflicting his peers can be addressed by keeping communication channels open and creating a safe haven at home, conducive for emotional stability.
“If my dad had come to me and explained what was going on at home; the lack of money and everything else in between, I might be telling a different story.”
“Parents don’t talk to their children but at them. They mistakenly assume children don’t know or understand what is going on, yet they do,” he observes, alluding to the fact that the problems facing young people start early in childhood.
Kabeeria Mmbogori is a young pastor in his mid-20s who ministers to youth. In his line of work, he comes across young people struggling with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, alcohol and drug abuse and, yes, some with suicidal tendencies. Some come from dysfunctional families and have trouble fitting in.
He too acknowledges the marked rise in the number of young people dying at their own hand.
“I know this young man who has attempted suicide so many times, that he lost use of his body from the waist down. Then there is this young girl who tried to end her life by slitting her wrists, luckily, a Good Samaritan found her in time and took her to the hospital. Many more have confessed to thinking about suicide,” he says.
Through interacting with youth from all walks of life, he ventures that lack of parental guidance, love and attention are the major reasons pushing teenagers to contemplate suicide.
“If you are a parent, keep your arms open. Be ready to listen to your children. Talk to them and explain, honestly, why things are the way they are,” he advises, adding that when children feel safe talking to their parents, they will readily come to them with their problems, rather than go to their peers for advice and counsel.
Kabeeria also feels the church can help save such young lives if it paid more attention to the psychosocial issues youths go through on a daily basis.
This realisation is what has led him to devote more time to offering group therapy to willing young people.
The shepherds in this ministry are few though, bearing in mind that some religious organisations label persons with mental illness demon-possessed, prescribing public exorcisms that only aggravate the illness and increase isolation and stigma.
“We can help by recognising and speaking openly about mental health problems and suicide among young believers. That’s a major step towards finding lasting solutions to the problem,” he suggests.
Through Reason To Hope, Kenya, an organisation dedicated to help individuals cope with the threat of issues related to maladjustment, peer pressure, stress, low self-esteem and drug and substance abuse, Kabeeria has been able to counsel and talk a number of youth out of suicide and help survivors cope better.
MENTAL WELLNESS AND SUICIDE
According to mental health expert, Shibero Akatsa, the capacity to think, act and process emotion in a rational manner is diminished among young people, especially when exposed to unbearable pressure, stress, drugs and alcohol.
She said children in this state of mind are more likely to commit suicide and advices caregivers to look beyond common forms of mental illness like schizophrenia and bipolar when trying to understand why more and more young people are committing suicide.
She cautions against treating them with antidepressants and other mood-altering drugs when diagnosed with depression because of their adverse side effects.
“Instead, try talk therapy, one-on-one or group therapy before putting your children on medication or sending them to an institution,” she says.
Anti-depressants are known to cause extreme violent behaviour in some children. Research shows antidepressant-induced violence and homicide is an international problem, but is particularly apparent in the US due to the widespread use (and misuse) of these drugs. Five of the top 10 most violence-inducing drugs are antidepressants.
The American Psychiatric Association recently issued a statement urging doctors and patients to reconsider the practice of using anti-psychotic medications as the first line of treatment for dementia, behaviour problems, and insomnia.
Shibero, a certified clinical psychotherapist specialising in psychosocial depression, or lifestyle-induced depression, knows from her experience helping children and teenagers overcome depression that many problems driving teens to suicide can be avoided by creating an environment conducive for both physical and mental wellbeing and resolved simply by talking.
“Children who face intense bullying at school or even online, are desperate to get away from the situation. They may ask to be removed from one school to another but when parents fail to take the threat seriously, a child may commit suicide, reasoning it is the easiest way out”
Open communication between parents and teenagers, Shibero confirms, goes a long way in affirming, guiding and assuring children that they are loved, valued and wanted.
She added that parents and caregivers can keep off the triggers that prompt children to contemplate suicide by offering tough love.
“Asked to choose between spending quality time with their parents and lots of money and material things, children will always choose the latter,” Shibero, mother to a teenage daughter, says, adding, “affirming, guiding and re-assuring children that they are loved, valued and wanted is important.”
“Some parents tend to compensate for their absence with money and material things - experience has shown that this is a recipe for disaster.”
“I know of cases of children from affluent homes that have committed suicide - many had difficulties learning, while others struggled to adjust and interact with their peers.”
These problems can be traced from a home environment where parents are not attentive enough and where parents in difficult relationships fail to shield their children from things that they cannot process or cope with, such as family breakups, violent death of a parent or sibling and unconventional relationships between parents.
What then can we do to reduce cases of suicide among our children?
According to WHO, improved surveillance and monitoring of suicide attempts and self-harm is key to suicide prevention and recommends the setting of a public health surveillance system. If you are a parent, these eleven guidelines could come in handy.
1. Keep communication lines open.
2. Listen carefully.
3. Ease pressure off your children.
4. Don’t talk down to your children, offer suggestions instead.
5. Correct them with love and respect.
6. Affirm them with your words and actions.
7. Let them know you trust them.
8. Create a safe environment at home where they are free to express themselves.
9. Know your child well enough to know when their behaviour is unusual.
10. Take drastic behaviour change seriously.
11. Talk to them. Seek professional help if talking fails.