Suicide and Culture

I’ve written so many columns about suicide since 1997, I’ll just adapt one from 2011. We might as well be spitting in the wind to get official action.

“Tomorrow Guyana will observe World Suicide Prevention Day. Yes, suicide is a worldwide problem and we are Number 1. In 2011, the theme for the commemoration activities was “Preventing Suicide in Multicultural Societies” and in this innocuous statement there is much food for thought. When suicide is discussed by policy makers, they usually toss out figures on the national rates prevalent in their respective countries.

In Guyana with its 200 suicides annually, our rate comes in at 26 per hundred thousand (pht). But over the course of the last few decades as statistics were collected, it became apparent that within countries there were striking differences in suicide rates among different ethnic groups. For instance in the US, Blacks committed suicide at only half the rate of Whites and the suicide rate for the latter group is actually 17.6 pht. This is more in line with the global suicide rate of 16 pht.

This suggested that efforts to mitigate suicide rates had to be directed to the affected communities. In Guyana, working in the Indian community since my return to Guyana in 1988, I could not help being struck by the high incidence of suicide among Indians in general and Hindus in particular. In 1997, working along with Swami Aksharananda among Hindu youths, we organised a seminar on suicide at the Cove and John Ashram.

As part of that exercise, we conducted a pilot survey of suicide in several communities on the West Coast Demerara. It confirmed our anecdotal evidence of suicide occurring in epidemic proportions among Indians as specifically Hindus. From that time we began to make annual calls for a national suicide programme to be initiated.

The Ministry of Health (MoH), through its Minister, candidly acknowledged the existence of the Suicide problem in our country and (very) gradually the bureaucracy swung into action. But evidently impelled by their rules and tradition, their response was measured. The release of a study in 2001 commissioned by Dr Frank Beckles, a clinical and forensic psychiatrist, whose son – himself a doctor, had committed suicide – was salutary.

In addition to garnering publicity to highlight the suicide menace, it provided concrete data that could guide the policy makers. It confirmed the high suicide rate but just as significantly it confirmed our early findings of the ethnic specificity of the problem.

Three out of every four suicides were by Indian Guyanese and it was therefore not surprising that Regions 6 and 2, dominated by Indians suffered the highest suicide rates: Berbice alone had 52.7% of all cases. Another finding that jumped out was that eight out of ten suicides were committed by males – and young males at that. Two thirds of all persons that committed suicide in Guyana were also below the age of 35. When the numbers were disaggregated it suggested that the suicide rate for Indians was 41 pht and for Indian males, a staggering 66 pht.

I remember being at the launching of the Beckles study and the subsequent discussion that honed in on the ethnic specificity of the phenomenon. It was pointed out by one interlocutor that while there was a high correlation between Hindus and suicide in Guyana it could not be assume that Hinduism was a causative factor. The predominantly Hindu village in India that the Indians had left had an extremely low rate of 6.3 pht. High suicide rates were found in all of the Indian “diaspora” countries ever since the beginning of Indentureship and this suggested a line on inquiry.

Of the programmes introduced to deal with suicide, in my estimation the initiative that holds the greatest potential for reducing the incidence of suicide is the Gatekeepers Programme. Here, individuals from communities concerned about the scourge are trained by professionals so that suicidal persons will have culturally compatible persons to whom they can turn. All communities must become Gatekeepers.

Unfortunately most of these programmes have faded. And we simply wring our hands even as there has been renewed calls for action, especially by the CaribVoice.”