The contents of a recent article in the media by Dr Tara Singh, “Given their first-hand knowledge, students could play a vital role in suicide prevention”, are head-scratching and puzzling. The ‘findings’ not only provide a skewed perception of the reality, but serve no purpose as they relate to suicide prevention. And the conclusion in the title is an enigma, given that not only are those teenagers part of the age group with the highest rate of suicide in Guyana, but also that self-harm, especially cutting, is on the rise, as are alcohol use, bullying, sexual coercion, teenage pregnancy, stress, lack of coping skills, violence, and other issues that impact suicide.
The fact is that students need help, not a role that would jeopardise their mental health. All the valid literature talk about both the problems and the need for help; and in the context of Guyana, even basic measures – such as counsellors in schools, or teacher training in violence prevention, psychosocial support, and other needed skills – are almost non-existent.
Had Dr Singh and his NGO really wanted to help, they could have made a difference by deploying their funds, skills, and support in measures that actually contribute to suicide prevention among teenagers in any number of ways. Instead, they display otherisation, the behaviour that says “we have an answer, but we’ll sit back and expect others to apply the answer”. Solutions are not exemplified by mere talk!
In terms of help, a recent incident of students fighting a teacher over a cellphone brings to the fore the possible need for the Police Force to launch a schools’ safety unit, and for schools to have a dean or otherwise named personnel responsible for discipline. Perhaps the Ministry of Education may want to consider these measures as a proactive approach to discipline, handling violence and preventing teacher-student conflicts. The Ministry may also want to train teachers in emphatic communication, so that student-teacher communication is always affirming and trust-building, instead of shaming and belittling students, creating angst and catalysing spontaneous suicide, as has happened in the past.
Also, on the issue of suicide, we note a disclosure by Professor Christina Hoven of Columbia University, that “Wide-ranging long-term studies on suicide will be conducted to determine the major risk factors for suicide in Guyana”. Really? Hasn’t the issue of suicide in Guyana been studied to death? Don’t we all know what needs to be done? Isn’t it time for studies, surveys, research et al to be ditched in favour of action, and for resources to be used to actually prevent suicide instead? When universities partner to engage in these kinds of studies, their overriding goal is to benefit themselves, with any positive concrete outcomes for their partners being minimal, incidental, and/or non-existent.
The fact is that all the ‘info’ they seek is already in the public domain. Instead of further unnecessary studies, they should help to execute a concerted national prevention campaign to include combating the numerous myths and misinformation that still prevail; relaunch of the gatekeepers’ programme to reach every community with available monitoring and support; an ongoing campaign to widely and continually publicise all hotlines and helplines, as well as provide info on how they are used, to bolster their usage and improvement; placement of psychologists in all hospitals, and letting mental health diagnosis take place at entry point for all patients; making reporting of suicide ideation mandatory; employing more psychiatrists; nationally tackling dysfunction in relationships and unhealthy parenting; fostering emphatic communication; training Police to deal with suicidal persons; rigidly and fully enforcing current laws on safe use, storage and disposal of agri-poisons; providing strong boxes to all farmers, and related ongoing training; training in primary interventions for those who ingest poisons; placement of counsellors in all schools; establishing the Friendship Bench concept across communities; training doctors and nurses in talk therapy and suicide prevention first- aid, so they, too, can become part of the solution; having counselling teams as part of the healthcare provision in every region; training teachers in psychosocial support, so they can help themselves and their students.
In effect, the Government, the University of Guyana, and Columbia University should tackle the issue head-on, instead of studying it ad infinitum; and they should do so wholistically, by also addressing gender-based violence, alcoholism, sexual and child abuse – all issues that impact suicide.