Politics and Society
Akachi was a remarkable human being: On mental health, how not to react, and what universities can do to help
May 13, marks one year since Akachi Chukwuemeka died by suicide, aged 21. Neke and I found and carried him to the UNNMedicalCentre that morning. I wrote this as a reference for how to discuss suicide, how schools should help. I still haven’t mourned him.
I have known Akachi for years, as a poet acquaintance from The Writers’ Community, UNN, but until this year, we hadn’t had a conversation that was personal. On 14 April, I saw a Facebook post by him and was worried. Benson confirmed that he was struggling with depression, and I sent him a message, got his number and texted him, asking if he wanted to meet and talk. We met the following day. I asked all the questions I knew to, everything about him, and listened. He had previously tried to end it. He was seeing a therapist. He was speaking with friends. We talked for hours: what he was feeling, his writing, his family, his circle of friends, his role as editor of the university literary journal The Muse. I told him I thought highly of him—and I do. At 21, he was stuck trying to answer great existential questions of meaning, happiness, fulfilment. One of the things I told him: Most of the answers you want can come from only experience; logic is not enough, has never been enough; at this young age and with limited experience, the answers are likely beyond your reach. I asked him to call me any time he wants so we would talk. Any time he felt it. He agreed. He seemed better having talked.
We spoke the following week and he sounded well, even jovial.
The next time we spoke was on Sunday, 12 May. He messaged on Facebook saying he’d lost my number, asking for it. I called him. How was he feeling? Fine. How fine? He said he was really okay. He said he would send me a message on Monday. I thought the message would be about The Muse. I wanted to tell him that I was in Nsukka and would like us to see. But he sounded okay, so, so okay, I didn’t, told myself I’ll do that tomorrow.
Monday morning, sometime after 7 a.m., he called. “You said I should call you if I want to go,” he said. “Okay, I want to go.” I called his name. Where was he? Would he come to see me, just enter okada and come, I would be at the gates. He said it didn’t matter, or something else that could be summarized as that. I was ready to come and see him right away, I said, that I was in Nsukka and would come right now. He hung up. I called. Unpicked. Again. Busy. Busy again and again.
I called his friends, found his hostel was Alvan Ikoku Hall. I knew he wouldn’t be there, so I went to Franco Pitch, searched the pavilions, checked each of the open, empty rooms. At first I didn’t know his room in Alvan, so I went room to room, asking if each was his. Ernest called to tell me the room number. I went there. Roommates said he just woke up and went out. Benson said to search the uncompleted building in the lawn tennis courts, and I did, all the rooms. Searched for two hours. I was ready to give up and just go to his room and hope he would return when Neke called: Mary said that Akachi said he was in the “tower” behind the UBA building—the huge uncompleted Colosseum-like structure there. So Mary was there with him? I began running there, relieved. But Neke then said that nobody was there with him. Which meant that there was guarantee that he hadn’t done anything. He had outsmarted everyone: he’d walked the entire expanse of UNN, from the Second Gate, where his hostel was, to Green Gate, where the building was. Very, very few people might have guessed that someone would go there.
I reached there as Neke was arriving with a taxi. Together we shouted his name, climbed the stairs, calling his name and searching for him. Minutes later, we heard him screaming. Four or five screams. We followed them. As we ran down the stairs, we felt a fear we hadn’t known before. We did not know what we would see.
We found him in a state I cannot say in public. Neke saw the two bottles of Sniper. She helped me lift him onto my back. Her courage is inspiring. We found our way out to the taxi. We brought him to the Medical Centre. Around 9:19 a.m.
The nurses were quick. He was fed a dark liquid, was given oxygen and several injections, and a tube was used to suck a glass jar-ful of liquid out of him. He remained unconscious. His phone was locked, his parents’ numbers weren’t in the removed sim, so one of his lecturers got it from his departmental file. His father arrived and I felt bad having to stand there and tell him what has happened to his son. He began praying. Everybody joined. The doctors and nurses weren’t sure if he would make it, but there was hope, it seemed.
Sometime to 12 p.m., he was taken in an ambulance to the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital. I didn’t join them, his friend Ebuka Evans did, and they got there sometime to 2 p.m.
Later in the evening, I got to the hospital in Enugu. His family was there, and for the second time, I could almost feel their pain as I answered their questions. He was on oxygen. I thought his breathing seemed to have improved, but a doctor told me to postpone talking about a psychiatrist because it was still 50-50. Hope was what everybody needed. My friend studying at UNTH, who offered to closely monitor his development, said that the drugs he was given should reverse the poison, but its success would depend on the time gap between his drinking it and our taking him to the Medical Centre. I left the hospital around 7:30 p.m. or later—likely.
I was home, had just told a few people that Akachi was better than he was in the morning, that I really think he will recover, when my UNTH friend, whom I was chatting with on WhatsApp, sent another message at 9:35 p.m.: “He has passed.”
My bones weakened. I called back the people I’d just given hope. It was then that a friend told me that he left a note on Facebook. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t stop seeing the stairs we ran down as he screamed.
I am in pain, for his family, and for myself; and I am terrified, for his friends’ pains, and what might happen. I am writing this hastily because it needs to be said, because I have woken up these past two days to find myself paralyzed. I have not written everything, the things I cannot unhear or unsee, because I have not even begun processing this. Akachi is not coming back.
At the end of most of his conversations, Akachi told people: “Don’t die. Live.” At different moments in his life, through different relationships with people around, he was able to cause real joy for the people around him. That is what we should hold on to: Akachi at his very best, caring for the pain of others, wanting happiness for them even as he tried to find it for himself.
WHY PEOPLE DIE BY SUICIDE
Based on WHO data, around 800,000 people die by suicide annually—one person every 40 seconds. Presently, it is the second leading cause of death among people between 15 and 29.
So why? The question we were bombarded with at the Medical Centre. Why did a 21-year-old final year student drink two bottles of Sniper? He was suffering depression. Not depression as sadness but depression as illness. Why? Hormones. The world. And some people are more vulnerable to depression due to their personality.
Nobody wants to end their lives without something having gone wrong in them, something they cannot actually control.
Depression and suicidal thoughts are (mostly) not caused by one thing.
Importantly, depression is not a “spiritual problem” in the (Nigerian) religious sense. Don’t think that simply directing a depressed person to find God or praying for them will heal them. What if they don’t even believe in God? As unimaginable as it is for many religious people, it is not everyone who finds meaning in the idea of God, or in anything at all.
To find out, please Google depression. Read as much as you can to understand it.
It is human: caring in death but never in life.
Please stop blaming people who die by suicide. Nobody will normally want to kill themselves, least of all in a painful way. And when this happens, please do not firstly make it about YOUR OWN PAIN, being “angry” that the person’s death hurt you. With some of the comments flying around from a few people who might have known the deceased, you just wonder: Are you hurt because someone is dead or because their death affects you?
This is not to argue that we should not engage suicide with our different pains—it is to point out how we often first play the blame game rather than learn from each case and identify how to help the next person.
Parents could have done this, friends should have done that: When you blame people for “allowing” a family member or friend to die by suicide, do you really believe that they did not do their best, all they could possibly do, to prevent someone they love from dying this way? What makes you think that you, a stranger, probably a complete stranger, are more willing than someone to save their own family or friend? Is there something you would have told the dead person, an expression of love or care, a reason to hold on, that you believe that said person’s loved ones did not say? So why blame them if you know you can’t possibly love their person more than they do? Really, it is easiest to talk about suicide, what “they” should have done, when the dead person is not close to you.
If you, classmate, teacher, neighbour, roommate, pastor, hear that someone died by suicide and query why their friends and family did not tell you, you should also wonder why said person did not come to you to talk about their problems, or even better, why YOU did not notice something wrong with someone you saw frequently, why YOU didn’t ask how they were, until their death.
Rather than rushing to compare yourself to the dead, announcing how you are better or stronger than they are (and you are not), you should challenge yourself to see things differently, to be understanding, empathetic. Life is so vast, and we all know very little. People who have mental illness need help, not judgement; they need sources of meaning, something to hold on to: in the absence of this, we have suicide.
Let the judging stop.
PRIVACY AND RESPECT
If you lose a loved one to suicide or any unexpected death, there are things you would never do to violate the memory of them. Please never do those things when other people lose their loved ones.
A) Respect the privacy of a dead person’s family. Don’t drag them into negative theories. It was breaking to hear that, at the Medical Centre, someone said, in his father’s hearing, that it couldn’t have been the man who caused it, that the man looks innocent. God. Even when he was standing right there.
B) Please never share photos of human beings in a state of death. In death, a human being is at their most helpless, unable to react to or defend themselves from the world’s gaze, speculation, judgement, and reduction. Why expose someone to the world at their weakest? Would you share a photo of your brother in a coffin? If you won’t, please don’t do it with other people’s brothers.
C) There is a different level of pain that Akachi’s family and friends are enduring now. First is the death itself. Second is the unfair guilt that they could have done more. Third is the news cycle, seeing his photos and things written about him by people who do not know him, people for whom he has become “content.” And fourth is the ignorant judgement—an unnecessary pain they are being forced to go through.
D) It is important to know that the phrase “commit/committed suicide” is dangerous language, heavy with judgement, even if unintended. THE LANGUAGE USED TO DESCRIBE HUMAN BEINGS WHO GAVE UP ON THE WORLD SHOULD NOT BE THE LANGUAGE USED TO DESCRIBE THE ACTIONS OF CRIMINALS.
WHAT SCHOOLS CAN DO
In my years in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, there have been four previous cases of suicide that I remember well. On 31 May 2012, a student I knew from afar, O.O., 23, hanged himself in the pavilion near the Male Hostels. In April 2013, a student I knew well, E.M., 20-30-something, caused a stir and our whole class swept the whole school searching for him—he eventually didn’t do it. On 19 July 2014, it was a lecturer in Enugu Campus, Dr B.O., 38. On 27 November 2016, a student, T.O., hanged himself in Odenigwe. The first, second and fourth people left notes. As did Akachi. In particular, this is the second case in the UNN’s Department of English and Literary Studies. Worse: a completed suicide will trigger more.
Yes, Nigeria is fucked-up: poor funding for education, poor funding for good things. But yes, universities can also take care of their students—to the best of their resources. A few things universities could do:
1) There should be a proper orientation for students on how to react to mental and psychological distress. It isn’t enough to put it in a handbook and trust that they’ll read it—most never open the handbook. They should be informed—with care, kindness, attention, and WITHOUT JUDGEMENT—about who to see, how to talk to said officials. Schools should have resident therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists, and if they do, they need to PASS THE INFORMATION to students through all possible channels: classrooms, religious organisations, social groups, the university radio, billboards, handout notes.
2) Lecturers appointed as Staff Advisers should be people who are humane, kind, open, and have integrity and strong moral reputations. The last two are crucial. I doubt many students would approach a Staff Adviser who is known to be corrupt or to sexually exploit students. A depressed student needs to feel safe, to know that they are in good hands, before they will trust an official, before they would speak.
3) Schools should train—in truth, retrain—their teaching and health staff to have the right attitude towards depressed students. Lecturers should refrain from shallow, reckless judgements about mental health in classrooms. The more they criticize and flatten the very real suffering of some students, the less depressed students would be to talk not just to them but to their colleagues. A particularly troubling case: Yesterday, a professor in UNN, a mother, was said to have called the death “stupid,” implying that he does not deserve sympathy because “he is an atheist.” This is a mother; this is her ignorant, arrogant dismissal of the child of another, a 21-year-old; and that this came from a professor is a different story. Who will approach a lecturer like this when they are depressed?
4) Schools should organize occasional evaluations of their students. Talks. Emails. Phone calls asking if the student noticed something odd about their classmates. Anything at all. If, like in UNN, the school has a Suicide Watch, then it could be more active. Both students and lecturers could be monitored.
5) Schools can consult with students, especially friends and family of people who have died by suicide, on what to do to detect signs, how to follow up such signs without triggering the depressed into doing it.
WHAT TO REMEMBER
At the end of most of his conversations, Akachi told people: “Don’t die. Live.” At different moments in his life, through different relationships with people around, he was able to cause real joy for the people around him. That is what we should hold on to: Akachi at his very best, caring for the pain of others, wanting happiness for them even as he tried to find it for himself. He was a remarkable human being and a gifted poet, and that is how he should be remembered: as a light.
The article was first published on the website: otosirieze.com and it is published here with permission of the writer.