Perpetuating misinformation and myths about suicide compound the problem

Georgetown, Guyana, August2, 2015: The June 29 article in a section of the local Guyana media on the Caribbean Public Health Agency’s (CARPHA) 60th Health Research Conference at the St George’s University Campus, Grenada was riddled with outdated information, misinformation and myths relating to suicide. And research has shown that with respect to suicide, in particular, myths and misinformation not only compound the problem but also add to the existing misperceptions.

Wrong: “…it (suicide) appears to be a culture among East Indians to escape their woes.”  Suicide is a national problem in Guyana, not an ethnic one. And to attribute suicide to ‘escaping their woes’ is to detract from the complexity of factors that drives suicide.

Wrong: “Some 80 percent of persons who commit suicide in Guyana are East Indians.” This is an outdated statistic that may have held currency three decades or so ago. Today that figure would be closer to 60%, with suicide increasingly becoming a national problem, driven by the same set of factors across all group demarcations. For example the current Health Minister referred to the community of Barima as having a very high suicide rate. Our own feedback and empirical evidence points to a very high suicide rate among all hinterland communities but most of it is unreported.

Wrong: “…it (Guyana) has also undertaken the highest number of interventions to tackle the scourge (regionally)". In fact there is no national intervention program and the few entities engaged in substantive, ongoing suicide prevention, more or less operate in Georgetown. The National Suicide Prevention Strategy exists only on paper. There is not a single suicide hotline. And there are no concerted measures to restrict access to agro chemicals. The Caribbean Voice had met with a number of stakeholders, including the Pesticide Board, to push for adaptation of the Shri Lanka Model of Hazard Reduction, which has reduced suicide in that nation by 50% in about a decade.  An undertaking to roll out such a measure in May is yet to come on stream.

Wrong: “Those who actually commit the act are between ages 20 to 49…with more men than women taking their lives.” The fact is that suicide is the leading cause of death among young people ages 15-24 and the third leading cause of death among persons ages 25-44, while in the 15-19 age group, it is the leading cause of death among females and the second leading cause of death among males. And while it is true that more males commit suicide, evidence points to a closing of that gap.

With respect to young people, feedback obtained by The Caribbean Voice indicates that they feel marginalized, misunderstood, unwanted and unable to meet the expectation set by their parents, which more often than not do not coincide with their realities or goals. The impression given is that in these cases parents tend to destroy their children’s self worth by comparing them to others who they are supposed to emulate and/or berating them for  not being different and/or not doing enough.

Wrong: “In Guyana, Dr. Harry identified culture and to a lesser extent religion as common risk factors of suicide”. Culture and religion are not risk factors. Risk factors include abusive and dysfunctional relationships; teenage affairs and pregnancy; rape and incest; an inability to deal with problems (lack of coping skills) and/or unbearable pain – physical or emotional - which generally give rise to awful agony and depression and feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, powerlessness and loneliness. Suicidal mindsets are prone to copycatting, a practice referred to as the Werther Effect and catalyzed by alcoholism; lack of empathetic communication and feelings of inadequacy and/or low levels of self-acceptance/self worth.

Also we are puzzled by the assertion that there is “improving access to mental health”. The fact is that the Mental Health Program is yet to be implemented and was not crafted via consultation with all stakeholders. Also there are only five psychologists operating in Guyana’s public health system and most public hospitals have no psychologist. Additionally, there is no mental health component at most hospitals or health clinics. Most importantly there is still widespread taboo and shame attached to manifestations of mental health issues.

Wrong: “Dr. Harry explained that the majority of persons who committed suicide did so by following the patterns of the persons they read about or had seen committing the act.” The fact is that reading about suicides does not cause any person to commit the act; it is done to escape the pain the person feels and this MYTH needs to STOP IMMEDIATELY.

Also merely seeing someone else commit suicide (which probably never happens as those who commit suicide usually do so without witnesses) does not cause anyone to commit suicide. And while copycatting does happen, it is catalyzed by risk factors and a driving need to end the pain and agony experienced, not simply a desire to follow suit. What seems to make this final, fatal step so easy to adopt is the fact that suicide has become normalized and is seen as just another option to dealing with trials and tribulations, pain and agony.

The Caribbean Voice also absolutely agrees that, “the media also need to be responsible in their reporting”. In fact we would go further and say that the media has a crucial role to play in suicide prevention and while we applaud the work done by the media over the last year or so, we must express disappointment and frustration that information dissemination and advocacy via the media is still inadequate. Among the militating factors is the rule adopted by some media not to publish letters carried by their competitors. The Caribbean Voice feels that with respect to suicide and related issues this rule should not apply. Also the media can certainly play significant roles in combating myths and misinformation while making coping information widely and easily accessible.

Incidentally, The Caribbean Voice agrees that suicide is underreported in Guyana, but we believe that 20% percent is a conservative figure, given that globally the average is 25% and that empirical and anecdotal evidence indicate that in Guyana underreporting exceeds the global average.

While we prefer not to comment on references to Suriname or Trinidad & Tobago in the article, we must, however, point out one glaring error: Suriname does not have “the second highest suicide rate in the world”; Suriname is ranked number five globally.


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