(Another international team has arrived to examine our “suicide problem”. What do you say? The following is adapted from a 2012 piece.)
Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about the phenomenon of suicide. It’s not I’m morbid. As an Indian Guyanese, I’m not sure how one can avoid such thoughts. With almost 200 suicides annually and more than three-quarters of them being Indians, there’s hardly a week you don’t get a call from some friend or acquaintance about someone they or you know who took their life. Who hasn’t been touched?
It’s been so ever since I can remember. Friends from other communities would joke: “What’s the name of an Indian cocktail? Malathion!” But interesting enough, investigating the scourge back in 1997 when Swami Aksharananda and I organised the first “Conference on Suicide in Guyana”, we found in the villages of the Bhojpuri Belt from where most of us had migrated, suicide had been a rare occurrence. The figures of the 19th century showed that Uttar Pradesh and Bihar had a rate of .6 per 100,000 while in the countries to which we had been exported to labour on the sugar plantations the numbers had skyrocketed to at least ten times that number. From Fiji to South Africa to the Caribbean, the authorities compiled meticulous records, even as they ignored the problem. Something had happened “out of India”: was it “anomie”? Was it their reaction to the brutality of the plantation regimen?
We’ve been highlighting this ethnic specificity of Guyanese suicide since 1997 to emphasise that whenever the authorities design a suicide intervention program, the statistics demanded they consider the cultural responses of Indians in general, and Hindus in particular, to the triggering mechanisms for suicide be taken into account. There has unfortunately been a studied refusal to heed the pleas. In 1997 after interviewing over a number of relatives of Indian Guyanese who had committed suicide, I noted that one factor seemed to be that culturally, the victims had been socialised not to express their frustrations to parents who they knew loved them but refused to give them autonomy in certain decisions. Their anger was retroflexed to hurt the parent. Was it a parenting issue?
In 2011, noting that “Multicultural societies require cultural sensitivity in all suicide prevention efforts,” the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP) designated the theme for World Suicide Day as: “Preventing Suicide in Multicultural Societies.” They emphasised: “Risk factors for suicide vary across cultural groups. Knowledge about common risk factors in a society often stems from research in majority populations. However, in a multicultural context we need to be aware that some risk factors may play different roles in the suicidal process as well as in suicide prevention for some minority groups compared to the majority population…
“In addition, other factors that might have a different impact on minorities compared to the majority population are attitudes towards suicidal behaviour and suicidal people (e.g. taboo, stigma), religion and spirituality, and family dynamics (gender roles and responsibilities).” It is therefore not surprising that as a result they warned, as is the case in Guyana, “The strategy/program is often aimed at the majority population and a specific cultural perspective or focus is missing.”
Another problem arising with the traditional approach in dealing with suicide has been its strong linkage with mental health services. It’s not that the latter are failing people, but that they are perceived as the appropriate service in the first place. In Guyana mental health is stigmatised as dealing with “mad people”.
The PPP government declared suicide a Public Health issue in 2001 and attempted from 2007 to train individuals within communities in a more nuanced ‘gatekeepers’ program to be available to counsel individuals contemplating suicide. But the initiative appears to have been mothballed for reasons that are not clearly apparent. The then Minister of Health Ramsammy had confessed that funding had always been a constraint but one hoped that faced with the enormity of the problem, this would have been rectified.
Since 2001 there have been a slew of “experts” every five years or so into Guyana, especially after we became the “suicide capital of the world” around 2014. Sadly, they came, they saw and then left reports that never went beyond noting, at best, that most suicide victims are Indian Guyanese. While there has been a slight lowering of the suicide rate, the correlation with Indian/Hindu Guyanese remail an unexplained constant.