Playing with suicidal lives

The maudlin handwringing that had characterised Government’s response to suicide for years has now been transmuted into an opportunity to score political points. This was brought out painfully during the last sitting of the National Assembly.
Even though Guyana has historically always had a high suicide rate – especially in the Indo-Guyanese community – it was not until the start of this millennium that it began to be given directed attention by the authorities. But during the last PPP administration, the interventions faltered and the government cannot deny this has not been reversed.
Suicide is closely linked with depression and it is accepted it is a Public Health issue. After private groups highlighted the scourge, a National Suicide Prevention Strategy was drafted in 2001. Studies at that time showed that with great consistency, approximately 200 persons were taking their lives annually. A preponderant number of those persons were males from the rural, Indo-Guyanese community. This statistic had shown up early on in the importation of this ethnic group as indentured labourers from the villages of India.
Emile Durkheim had conducted the first study on the phenomenon in 1897, when he observed that the rates of suicide in the Protestant and Catholic communities were significantly different. While the decision to commit suicide was obviously an individual one (the Jim Jones tragedy being a notable exception) the statistical consistency implied structural group processes at work.
Durkheim proposed his famous theory off “anomie”, which suggested that suicide, could result when the societal bonds tying an individual to a close-knit community are sundered and the individual struggles unsuccessfully to live according to values that the new circumstances do not facilitate.
All subsequent studies of the phenomenon have shown that while individual psychological/organic problems might also play a role in precipitating suicidal behaviour, they have supported Durkheim’s theory that specific cultural responses to societal challenges are predominant.
This finding suggests that success in preventing suicide will have to be, in the main, community specific. What has also been found is that “suicide attempts” are different from actual suicides not only in the fact of differential mortality but also in the motivation of the individuals that attempt the acts. Suicide attempts are considered to be more of a cry for help.
In 2007, the National Committee for Suicide Prevention was formed and two years later, the Ministry of Health in collaboration with the Pan-American Health Organisation (PAHO) hosted a two-day workshop on the Prevention and Control of Suicide Behaviour in Georgetown.
It included individuals from Trinidad, Guyana and Suriname that were working on the problem in their countries, which had similar demographics. For the first time, a programme that involved the community – the “Gatekeepers Programme” – was launched.
This programme was intended to educate members of target communities to be aware of tell-tale signs exhibited by individuals contemplating suicide. Interventionary measures were taught, one being to suggest to the individual on the need to seek help from mental health workers who would be trained to make more directed interventions – including medication for depression. However after the training of a few hundred “gatekeepers” in Regions 6 and 3, the programme lapsed.
Of recent, one of the most consistent and comprehensive response to the suicide epidemic that has catapulted Guyana as #1 in the world, has come from the CaribVoice, and they have consistently called for the Gatekeepers Programme to be resuscitated.
When in Opposition, the now governing parties had proposed that Suicide Prevention should be higher on the agenda of health priorities in Guyana.
After the unseemly politicised debate, we suggest that a bi-partisan Special Select Committee on Suicide be constituted by Parliament to craft proposals on how to fund and extend the Gatekeepers Programme.
Simultaneously, the Parliamentary Sectoral Committee on Social Services should conduct hearings from the experts and stakeholders on crafting an overarching response to the scourge of which the Gatekeepers Programme would be a subset.