Many would perhaps argue that reported cases of suicides across Nigeria in recent months is not a trend but an increasing focus on these tragic occurrences by the media.
However, the cases that have attracted public attention lately seem to be taking a disconcerting trend.
On October 21, the body of Edward Soje, a director in the Kogi state civil service was found dangling from a tree behind the mammy market at the Maigumeri barracks, Lokoja.
Before his shocking death, the 54-year-old civil servant’s family had just been blessed with a set of male triplets, a thing of joy in an African setting especially in the line of reports that the marriage had been without a child for over 17 years.
Mr. Soje, a grade level 16 Officer in the Kogi State Teaching Service Commission, was being owed 11 months’ salary arrears at the time he committed suicide.
In the suicide note he left behind (apparently addressed to his wife), he gave an insight into why he took his own life.
“Psalm 121:3 God will not suffer your foot to be moved: He that keepeth you will not slumber. Amen. You and the three boys, the God Almighty will keep you and prosper you, amen. I love you,” the suicide note said.
The note did not give further details even though many attributed his action to frustration over his inability to meet financial obligations worsened by non-payment of his emoluments.
However, Mr. Soje’s case is just one of numerous Nigerians (many unreported) who have taken their own lives in the past few months.
While Nigerians were still reeling from the tragedy in Kogi, their attention would soon be drawn days later to Lagos where a similar action took place.
A 40-year-old, Adekunle Oluseyi from Ondo State, jumped into the lagoon from the Lekki – Ikoyi Link Bridge at about 9:58 a.m. on a Friday. The motive for his action could not be immediately ascertained by investigators even as they quickly deployed crafts to retrieve the body from the murky waters
More sordid tragedies
In January, 21-year-old Mansur Tanko set himself ablaze in Jalingo because his father, Tanko Mijinyawa, allegedly refused to approve of his plan to marry. The massive burns he suffered from the self-inflicted injuries eventually led to his death.
In May, police in Niger state were called in to investigate the death of Halima Kabiru, who reportedly drank poison after an argument with her husband, Musa Kabiru.
The trend is not limited to class or privilege. The death of a naval officer, Teikumo Daniel Ikoli, reportedly via suicide on April 5 shocked many perhaps due to the fact that the fleet commander was reportedly on President Mohammadu Buhari’s shopping list for the next Chief of Naval Staff.
In Taraba, the police early in the year issued an alarm on the rising cases of suicides mainly by youth in the city.
Within a few months, it had recorded many such incidences.
A 30-year-old student of the Nigerian Law School, Abuja, Auwal Haruna, allegedly committed suicide hanging himself on the ceiling fan in his hotel room in Takum, Taraba State. The reason for his action could not be ascertained.
In February, the command said it recorded two such cases in Jalingo. While one involved a 400-Level student of the Taraba University, Friday Samson, 32, who poisoned himself to death over lack of funds to pay his school fees, the other involved a guard, Saidu Babura, 45, who hung himself on a tree at Hassan Primary School, Jalingo, after an alleged battle against drug abuse.
In Kano, 45-year-old Balarabe Haruna who lived in Hausawa Sabon Titi quarters, woke up one day, climbed over the edge of a well and jumped to his death, resident said.
Haruna was reported to have told his 10 children and wife, ‘‘to excuse him’’ before taking the fatal plunge
On June 14, 52-year-old Opeyemi Babatola said to be a pastor’s wife hung herself in her room in Aule area of Akure. Before her death, she had reportedly told her husband, Adeolu Babatola that she was going to the ‘mountain to pray.’
That was the last time, Mr. Babatola would see his wife alive.
Fast-forward to September in Lagos, it was also a time of horror when it was reported that a director in Lagos State Ministry of Youths, Oludare Buraimoh, who lived at Unity Estate, Phase II, Gbonagun, Abeokuta, Ogun State, took his life by hanging himself.
In the same month of September, a 70-year-old man simply called Inuwa reportedly jumped into a well for undisclosed reasons. He had been declared missing for days before his family eventually saw his crumpled body at the bottom of the well.
Perhaps a month of such tragedies, a 22-year old housewife, Hajara Bala in September decided to end her life when she drank rat poison to register her displeasure over a domestic issue.
Neighbours claimed that her husband’s intention to take a second wife had pushed her to take the action as she had vowed not to be alive to see the day the second wife would move into her home.
In October 16-year-old Mercy Afolaranmi a 100-level student of Microbiology at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife reportedly committed suicide by drinking a mixture of rat poison and acidic water. Her colleagues attributed her action to poor grade in a subject while a neighbour said it was due to ‘emotional pressure.’
A global concern
A suicide fact sheet updated by the World Health Organisation, WHO in August 2017, reveals startling facts that show that suicide is not just a Nigerian challenge.
According to the fact sheet, close to 800 000 people globally die due to suicides every year.
But that is not all, the global body adds. It says it (suicide) can initiate more similar tragic deaths if not tackled from the roots. It also gave further insight into the social concern.
“For every suicide (recorded) there are many more people who attempt suicide every year. A prior suicide attempt is the single most important risk factor for suicide in the general population.
‘‘Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15–29-year-olds. 78 per cent of global suicides occur in low- and middle-income countries (Nigerian included). Ingestion of pesticide, hanging and firearms are among the most common methods of suicide globally’’, the sheet said.
Attempts to request Nigerian police statistics on suicides did not yield result.
An aide of police spokesperson, Jimoh Moshood, who picked his boss’ call promised to get back to the reporter but was yet to do so at the time of filing report. A subsequent text message was not responded to.
Also, the deputy force spokesperson, Adeniran Aremu, did not pick his calls.
But, the WHO in its Global Health Observatory data repository updated in April 2017 painted a dark picture. It lists Nigeria as 30th in a survey of ‘age-standardised’ suicide rates per 100, 000 persons. The survey covered 183 nations.
Nigeria is also listed 10th in Africa, in a sidebar category of nations with alarming rates of suicides such as Togo which ranked 26th globally, Burkina Faso (22nd), Cameroon (19th), Zimbabwe (16th), Central African Republic, CAR (13th), Sierra Leone (11th), Angola (9th), Equatorial Guinea (7th) and Cote D’Ivoire (5th).
A link with mental disorder
The world body also highlights a link between suicides and mental disorders in certain countries even though it outlays other factors such as ‘‘stress, conflicts and financial problems.’’
‘‘While the link between suicide and mental disorders (in particular, clinical depression and alcohol use disorders) is well established in high-income countries, many suicides happen impulsively in moments of crisis with a breakdown in the ability to deal with life stresses, such as financial problems, relationship break-up or chronic pain and illness.
‘‘In addition, experiencing conflict, disaster, violence, abuse, or loss and a sense of isolation are strongly associated with suicidal behaviour. Suicide rates are also high amongst vulnerable groups who experience discrimination, such as refugees and migrants; indigenous peoples; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex (LGBTI) persons; and prisoners. By far the strongest risk factor for suicide is a previous suicide attempt’’, WHO says.
The North-east region ravaged by insurgency in recent years has witnessed numerous suicide attacks carried out usually by young girls.
A community psychiatric nurse, Shabi Ayokunle, who works at the Huntercombe Hospital, Maidenhead, UK (a specialist child and adolescent mental health services hospital) believes that until the society pays more attention to the mental well-being of its citizens, especially via relevant policies, it will continue to wallow in crisis.
In emailed notes sent to PREMIUM TIMES, he says inter alia that studies have shown that there is a ‘‘12-fold increased rate of suicide associated with persons found to be suffering severe mental illness.’’
He explained further in the notes: ‘‘Higher rates of suicide and self-harm occur in particular groups, individuals with records of previous self-harm or suicide attempts (and these) have a 30-fold tendency to make another attempt unless they undergo treatment.’’
He added that societies should not view mental health challenges by fellow citizens as taboo while also outlining a link between economic decline/unemployment and suicides.
‘‘Unemployment is one of the most important causes of social exclusion among adults of working age. Due to financial difficulties, unemployment can have an adverse effect on diet and lead to unhealthy behaviours such as smoking and alcohol consumption. Prolonged unemployment is linked to worsening mental and physical health, including an increased risk of suicide and premature death.’’
He says government at all levels ought to have effective policies in place to help persons with mental health issues.
‘‘Studies show that mental health represents the largest single cause of disability. It affects people at all points of the life: new mothers, children, teenagers, adults and older people. Twenty-three per cent of adults (globally) have at least one diagnosed mental health problem. It is key in premature mortality. There is a need for early intervention and prevention as well as promoting mental well-being.’’
The zonal president of the of the Society of Family Physicians of Nigeria, SOFPON, Blessing Chukwukwelu recently in an interview with Vanguard newspaper said seven million Nigerians were living with depression which she said was a major factor in suicide cases.
‘‘In Nigeria, only one-fifth of those with depressive episodes receive any treatment and only one in 50 receives treatment that is minimally adequate,’’ Mrs. Chukwukwelu was quoted as saying.
The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, CASP in a recent study on the issue posits that mental illness is a major factor, but not ‘‘totally defining in most suicide cases.’’
‘‘The great majority of people, who experience a mental illness do not die by suicide. However, of those who die from suicide, more than 90 percent have a diagnosable mental disorder’’, the body says on its website.
‘‘People who die by suicide are frequently experiencing undiagnosed, undertreated, or untreated depression (a form of mental disorder)’’, it adds.
The typical Nigerian reaction
Mental health, while not totally in the realm of a taboo in the Nigerian society, nevertheless is usually discussed in hushed tones. In other words, no one really wants to talk about it
This may account for why many suffering emotional trauma or depression rarely come out of their closets especially when such traits are tagged as, ‘‘mental ailment.’’
Many therefore prefer to suffer in silence, a silence that has perhaps pushed not a few to the ledges of suicide.
On the flipside, the nation’s criminal code which criminalises any attempt at ending one’s life rather than bring relief to this challenge has been criticised by many.
Federal-backed laws criminalise nonfatal suicidal behaviour. In other words, rather than being assisted to overcome the traumatic siege, one can actually be prosecuted by the government for surviving a suicide attempt.
A study published in African Journal of Criminology and Justice Studies (AJCJS) noted that the Nigerian Federal Law criminalises non-fatal suicidal behaviour.
‘‘Nigeria Penal Code, Chapter 27, Section 327 says: “Any person who attempts to kill himself is guilty of a misdemeanour and is liable to imprisonment for one year.
‘‘Nigerian law also goes further to criminalise abetment of suicide, as Chapter 27, Section 326 of the Nigeria Penal Code says: “Any person who (1) procures another to kill himself; or (2) counsels another to kill himself and thereby induces him to do so; or (3) aids another in killing himself; is guilty of a felony and is liable to imprisonment for life.”
The reporter is not immediately certain if anyone has been successfully prosecuted under the law.
In January, 2013, an official of the Nigerian Railway Corporation, NRC said 300 persons were arrested and charged for attempted suicide for riding recklessly on train coaches.
In August 2017, a man Abiodun Onipede in Ogun state was arrested and charged for attempting to take his own life over a N50, 000 loan he could not repay.
It is not a media creation
An editor with Leadership newspapers, Asiwaju Gbadebo, does not agree that there is a spike in suicide cases. He says rather, ‘‘there is a recurring trend in suicide cases though on a subtle level.’’
‘‘It is not a media creation. The incidences are actually a reflection of the current state of the society where people are depressed because of one (economic) challenge or the other. In order to stem the ride of recurring suicide, government at all levels, therefore, must introduce social security schemes to cater for the needy and the most vulnerable people. These measures must include job creation to employ teeming youth and public enlightenment to discourage people from committing suicide as the last resort’’, Mr. Gbadebo said.
The cases of suicides in Nigeria in recent months, according to Adetomiwa Adetilewa, a political affairs analyst, who shuttles from his base in Illinois to Nigeria periodically, is a reflection of the ‘‘increase in poverty and hopelessness in Nigeria.’’
He told PREMIUM TIMES that the country is moving backwards at the speed of light while the people are ‘‘adjusting to the horrible situation through suicide.’’
‘‘The federal government devalued the currency by 100 per cent yet they refused to increase salaries meaning an intentional cut in the value of the salaries received by workers. Since most of the consumables are imported, the percentage currency devaluation amounts to 50 per cent income reduction. Also, salaries are no longer paid as at when due. In addition, the government is yet to come out with a clear-cut roadmap to economic recovery, therefore, showing that the end to the current economic crisis is not yet over’’, Mr. Adetilewa said.
Mental health panacea
2001 WHO report on the global challenge laments lack of adequate access to treatment for the mentally infirm by many developing nations.
It says inter alia that, ‘‘constant exposure to severely stressful events, dangerous living conditions, exploitation, and poor health in general all contribute to the greater vulnerability of the poor. The lack of access to affordable treatment makes the course of the illness more severe and debilitating, leading to a vicious circle of poverty and mental health disorders that is rarely broken.’’
It however says nations should ‘‘de-emphasise focusing on traditional mental health institutions but focus on community care alternatives.’’
‘‘Such institutions (formal mental health facilities) lead to a loss of social skills, excessive restriction, human rights violations, dependency, and reduced opportunities for rehabilitation. Countries should move towards setting up community care alternatives in a planned manner, ensuring that such alternatives are in place even as institutions are being phased out,’’ the world body said.
An information officer at the ministry of information, strategy, Lagos state, Temilade Arua in a recent analysis said more states should adopt the appropriate strategies in addressing the health challenge.
‘‘Perhaps, more importantly, all tiers of government must pay more attention to rising cases of mental health. The Lagos state government recently adopted a policy that aims to respect the rights of residents with mental illness. The objective is to guarantee social justice and equity for victims of mental illness as well as ensuring that the rights of such people are respected.
‘‘The basic components of the state’s mental health policy include promotion aimed at conducting awareness programmes and educating the people on the effects of substance and alcohol abuse, services for people with severe mental illness, reduction of workplace stress and the risk of suicides and human resources for mental health.’’
The media angle
Many Nigerians have also flayed the media handling and reportage of such incidences saying it could be done much more professionally.
‘‘The way the media continues to focus on cases of people killing themselves with others displaying gory details of the suicides on social media leaves much to be desired for us as Nigerians’’, says Ayodele Emmanuel, a public affairs analyst based in Abuja.
He adds that, ‘‘while the media cannot be muzzled from disseminating information, it must do it with decorum and a sense of responsibility to protect the families involved from societal ridicule. The media must also be part of the solution to stem the tide.’’
This may explain why the WHO in 2017 came up with an updated booklet tagged, ‘Preventing Suicides: A Resource for Media Professionals,’ aimed at training journalists on how to responsibly report such tragedies.
The booklet says inter alia that vulnerable individuals are at risk of engaging in ‘imitative’ behaviours following media reports of suicide, particularly if the coverage is ‘‘extensive, prominent, sensational, explicitly describes the method of suicide and condones or repeats widely-held myths about suicide.’’
‘‘The risk is particularly pronounced when the person who died by suicide had a high social status and/or can easily be identified with. Reports of suicide that trigger subsequent suicides are often repeated over a longer period. The effect of media reports on increasing suicides is referred to as the “Werther effect”, named after the title character in Goethe’s novel, The sorrows of young Werther, who dies by suicide when faced with the loss of his love’’, the report noted.
It said further that ‘‘responsible reporting about suicide may help to educate the public about suicide and its prevention may encourage those at risk of suicide to take alternative actions and may inspire a more open and hopeful dialogue in general.’’
‘‘Stories demonstrating help-seeking (positive coping) in adverse circumstances may strengthen protective factors or barriers to suicide and thus contribute to its prevention. Media reports about suicide should always include information about where to seek help, preferably from recognised suicide prevention services that are available on a 24/7 basis.
‘‘Protective effects of responsible media reporting about suicide have been referred to in the scientific literature as the “Papageno effect”, named after the character Papageno in Mozart’s opera, The magic flute, who becomes suicidal when he fears he has lost his love, but is reminded of alternatives to suicide at the last moment and subsequently chooses an alternative route of action. Media recommendations need to be tailored to traditional media as well as digital media and should aim to reach as many people as possible about suicide prevention…’’