Addressing the exponential rates of suicide in Nigeria
When Chidike Onyeka, a 25-year-old graduate of Madonna University, returned home to his parents after being away for a year; his mother realised a change from his usual self as he had become withdrawn and always seen gazing at nothing for several minutes with an expression indicating he was in a different reality.
Onyeka refused all efforts by his sibs who offered to take him out, insisting that he wanted to be alone as he was unhappy. He sometimes complained about his inability to get a job after his one year of mandatory service.
It was reported that his mother woke up at midnight on that day to do her security routine checks, when she saw her son lying in a pool of his own blood. It was gathered that Onyeka, who returned to Aguda area of Lagos State from NYSC, stabbed himself three times with a kitchen knife.
His story is akin to other victims of suicide like the Lagos-based disc jockey, Seun Omogaji, popularly known as DJ XGee. Though Omogaji’s reason for committing suicide was not clearly stated in his suicide note which he posted on Instagram, friends claimed he had complained of facing some marital crisis and the way forward was to take his own life.
In his suicide note, he simply bade his siblings and mother farewell and asked friends to wear white to his funeral instead of black, before gulping an insecticide, ‘Sniper’.
For Tolulope Abodunrin (aka Don Tee), a bank worker, one would expect he had truly overcome his struggle with depression after admitting to having suicidal thoughts for two years due to depression, and promised to write a book about surviving the pains. But two months after, Abodunrin, also a 2006 graduate of Accounting from the University of Ilorin, Kwara State, gave in to depression and took his own life on November 21, 2018.
Depression, a major cause of suicide is not restricted to age, or social status. Many celebrities have at one time or the other in their careers attempted or thought about committing suicide. Celebrities like Toke Makinwa, Julius Agwu, Mr. Ibu, Adunni Ade, Tee Billz had admitted to thinking about ending things.
“A lot of people in this country, Nigeria, don’t want to admit that depression is an illness. People don’t know the extent to which it affects the mind. A lot of people know this; in the past, I have tried to commit suicide because it was just too much, just too much for me but I guess God loves me enough to still keep me here,” Adunni Ade said in her confession.
“Depression is no joke,” she adds, and this depression has led to a surge in suicide among undergraduates and lectures in recent times. Cases obtained from several news reports show that students of higher institutions constitute the highest victims of suicide cases in the last eight months.
On May 13, 2019, Chukwuemeka Akachi, a final year student of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, committed suicide, sharing a poetic suicide note on Facebook. He wrote: “Forgive me. In case you are the one who finds the body. I am really sorry. It had to be someone, you know. I have chosen Jo Nketaih’s poem as my suicide note: ‘They said you came looking for me. I did not drown; I was the water.’ Where do atheists go to when they die? Lol. Amen.”
The deceased was said to have battled dementia for over two months and survived a previous suicide attempt. Two lecturers had been asked by the university to monitor and counsel him but this proved futile as the English and Literary Studies student carried out his threat by taking a poisonous substance.
Another final year student of the Department of Religion and Culture, University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), Samuel Elias, 25, also committed suicide by drinking the deadly chemical, Sniper. His mother, Kate Elias, a staff of the university, said the unfortunate incident happened on Monday June 17, around 5.30pm in her house at Justina Eze Street Nsukka.
She said Samuel was immediately rushed to Faith Foundation Hospital, Nsukka and was later referred to Bishop Shanahan Hospital, Nsukka, where he eventually died. Before his death, the deceased student was said to have been lamenting over his inability to graduate from UNN because of his final year project which had been holding him back.
Also, Kolapo Olowoporoku, a student of the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Osun State, took his life after repeatedly failing some courses. Olowoporoku was said to be an ‘extra year’ Computer Science student who ought to have graduated two sessions ago but was delayed as a result of two outstanding courses. He swallowed a poisonous substance, which led to his death.
A 27-year-old final year student of the Faculty of Agriculture at the University of Ilorin, Adigun Emmanuel, also committed suicide by consuming a bottle of Sniper after he failed his final year project for the three times. In a note left behind on social media, he indicated that he had been accused of plagiarising his current research work.
Hikmat Gbadamosi, a 100-level student of the University of Port Harcourt, Rivers State, was another of victim of suicide. According to reports, she had been showing signs of depression and had opted to live in a private apartment off school campus, and away from her colleagues.
The student of Chemical Engineering, who was also the assistant course representative of students at her level, recorded a short video in which she was seen crying and saying, “It worsens every time and I don’t know who to call” which was posted online. That was the last anyone saw her alive.
Her bloated corpse was discovered in her room some days after some of her classmates went to check on her. She consumed Sniper.
Between January and June 2019 alone, there were 42 reported cases of suicide that occurred in different parts of the country. Eleven out of the victims were students of various higher institutions of learning in the country. Fifteen out of the 42 took a dangerous insecticide- Sniper; while 31 other victims from different walks of life also committed suicides during the period.
The bitter statistics
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-29 year olds globally and it occurs throughout the lifespan, according to World Health Organisation. In 2016, Nigeria ranked fifteen in WHO’s report on suicide per 100,000 people, indicating that Nigeria has the fifteenth highest suicide rate worldwide.
But in July 2018, Nigeria ranked fifth in another WHO research that ranked suicide per 100,000, per country published by Spectator Index. Nigeria was placed fifth with 15,000 suicides in every 100,000 suicides.
Later in the year 2018, the Federal Ministry of Health said that about 20 to 30 percent of Nigerians suffer from mental illness. Abdulaziz Abdullahi, the permanent secretary of the ministry, said with a population of about 200 million, Nigeria had a high rate of mental illness. This implies that Nigeria has about 60 million persons with mental illnesses.
Explaining the cause of suicide in Nigeria and especially among undergraduates, Jombosco Chukwu Orji, Lecturer in Clinical Psychologist, at the Department of Psychology, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, told BDSUNDAY that suicide was a multifaceted issue, and it would be over simplistic to say one thing causes suicide.
He said there are combinations of biological, socio-cultural factors that may be implicated in suicide, and these are meant to be taken into considerations because a lot of times, it is possible suicide run in families.
“Like in most cases of suicide, if you trace the family history, you’ll see that it may have occurred in the past in a relation of the person,” he said.
However, stating that it was important to consider psychosocial issues that may be implicated in suicide; the lecturer attributed the cause of suicide to mental pain—stating it was one critical factor that you must always find to be prominent in all suicide case.
“It is an unbearable pain that has exceeded the threshold of the individual’s capacity to manage, so there is this cry for help, so much silent cry for help. May be, the person may not be saying out or may be saying it out indirectly and those close to him or her may not understand. So, when this pain is so much that the individual feels that the only way to end the pain is to take his or her life, then you can see that suicide can occur,” Orji explained.
BDSUNDAY findings show that one reason given by suicide victims in their last words was poor academic performance or academic difficulties, hence, among students; the doctor said academic performance as a cause may not be ruled out.
“But there are one or two instances where people have also complained that it was because of their academic performance. So we may not rule it out,” he said.
Jolaade Philips, Media and Communications manager, Mentally Aware Nigeria Initiatives, who said mental awareness has improved in Nigeria through social media which had normalised the conversations, said suicide rates among undergraduates and Nigeria at large boils down to support systems and coping mechanisms.
She said that every person has the threshold for dealing with things, and noted that most suicides are caused by mental illness but not all suicides are caused by mental illness.
“For some of these people, they could have an underlying condition, it could be an undiagnosed mental illness, it could be when a tragic thing happens in their lives, maybe they fail a particular exam, or a boyfriend breaks up with a lady. Because they have things they’ve never dealt with in their lives, it just triggers that feeling and the only thing that comes to your head is ending it.
“You discover that, there are people that fail, who don’t take their lives, and there are people that lose people close to them and they don’t die by suicide. It’s because, as human beings, we have different thresholds and exposed to different things growing up which affect how we react to traumatic events,” Philips explained .
A case for depression
The fact remains that many prominent public figures have admitted to being depressed which almost led to them having suicidal thoughts. But Doctor Orji, making reference to research, argued that though depression is a factor, it has little contribution to suicide. He said mental pain has more variance in suicide beyond what depression contributes.
“For example, you can see individuals who have depression, but they do not commit suicide. But you see individuals who don’t have depression, but have the mental pain and they die by suicide. Such that, where there is depression and there is mental pain, such individuals are much more likely to die by suicide than when you have depression and there is no mental pain associated with it. Depression contributes to suicide, but not as much as mental pain,” he argued.
But Philips said extreme depression, what she described as stage four, is a major trigger for suicide. “Yes, it actually does. When it comes to mental illness and suicide, you discover depression is among the top four mental illnesses that could eventually lead to suicide. So, people who die by suicide, sometimes you will notice that they were depressed. It’s rampant. Because the way depression works is that when you are in your lone world, the only way you look at life is through the lens of , ‘I’m hopeless, worthless,’ and ‘there is nothing else that can help me except I die’.”
According to WHO, depression is a common illness worldwide, with more than 300 million people affected. At its worst, depression can lead to suicide. Close to 800 000 people die due to suicide every year.
Fighting suicide: Challenges and the way out
Speaking on ways to prevent the scourge of suicide, Orji suggested more awareness in Nigeria, and universities where these occurrences are becoming prevalent in recent times. He also recommended that any intervention should be approached from different angles, and several perspectives.
“Individuals who are known to have family members that have died by suicide should always be closely looked out for, and then make efforts to always get to them, and ensure that they communicate freely with others. And people make them communicate their problems and their troubles.
“At the institutional level, what needs to be done urgently is that, in most educational institutions, there is this lack of awareness about mental health services, even where they exist, students are not aware, and in most cases, they do not exist,” he said.
He also said that having more toll-free hotlines so that people who choose to remain anonymous can call in Nigeria to receive mental health services would do a lot of good. He urged university institutions to establish functional counselling units and mental health centres in their institutions.
“You don’t really need the government to establish these centres. It is the universities saying we need these services and then employing the right personnel to work in such places. When you say government, it appears too big,” he said.
“So we don’t have good support systems in schools; our counselling units are not equipped to help people with mental issues or don’t position themselves well enough to help people with mental issues. If the whole outlook of our counselling units in universities is changed, I think it would go a long way,” Philips further said.
She added students don’t have anybody to talk to in school, and can’t open up to their friends because they feel they will be stigmatised. “So they resort to alcohol because they can’t cope. Now, you can’t blame them for finding a coping mechanism because the country or the institution didn’t provide any for them.”
Talking about the challenges in the fight against suicide and promoting good mental health, Philips names stigmatisation from all sides including religious organisations, the media and others as factors.
“Lack of support; worldwide it is difficult to get support for mental illness. And also, the government didn’t do much. Then cultural stigma too, how we have been told you don’t marry somebody who has history of mental illness in their family. So, somebody who is mentally ill might be very reluctant to open up to their loved ones,” Philips said.
The government’s posture
She also blamed the government over hampering efforts aimed at reducing incidences of suicide, stating that the Lunacy Act of 1958 which Nigeria operates is obsolete. According to her, the old Act that Nigeria is still riding on refers to people who are mentally ill as lunatics.
“According to that law, the patient does not have rights to treatment, so you can do anything to a patient. There is also this law that we’ve had to deal with over and over which prevents people from coming, which is, if you have a failed suicidal attempt, you are liable to one year imprisonment or fine. This prevents people from seeking help, and prevents us from helping people that we find,” she said.
In fact, “Government is the key,” said Orji. “For example, you talk of the mental health policy in Nigeria, the mental health act is only on paper. In terms of implementation we don’t know of anything serious being done and it is the division of the ministry of health that is responsible for it.”.