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The Reality of Suicide and the Tragedy of Stigma in Our Black African Communities

If we do not change our attitude to mental health issues and suicide, the stigma will make people suffer in silence and ultimately result in more death and suffering, says Joyline Maenzanise.

The death by suicide of high-profile individuals always gets the international community talking about suicide and mental illness. Of course, this is not to say that suicide is always fuelled by mental illness. Sometimes life’s circumstances just get the better of us and death seems like the only way out of our misery. Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain are the latest of such highly accomplished and seemingly successful individuals whose deaths are a sobering reminder that our accomplishments and material possessions are not always enough to guarantee true happiness and fulfilment. Although their deaths are saddening, it is encouraging to note that they sparked another global conversation on suicide and mental health.

Many people have taken to social media to share messages of hope and to remind each other to “check on loved ones” or, when struggling, “to reach out for assistance”. However, we also need to understand that such calls are incapable of yielding the desired effect of increasing one’s well-being or preventing future suicides unless we challenge and change our (mis)perceptions of mental issues and suicide. Our beliefs around these issues are often the stumbling block that prevents people from talking about their struggles or suicidal thoughts. Even after seeking assistance, many people end up regretting having done so because of our reactions, which we mistakenly think are viable solutions. In Black communities, it can be argued that much of the way in which we deal with these issues has served to create damaging stigma which, if we do not change our perceptions, will be sustained to the continued detriment of our well-being.

Our beliefs around these issues are often the stumbling block that prevents people from talking about their struggles or suicidal thoughts.

Last year the World Health Organization reported that more than 300 million people are now living with depression, which is the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide. WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said the figures were “a wake-up call for all countries to re-think their approaches to mental health and to treat it with the urgency that it deserves”. WHO says suicide is a global phenomenon and close to 800 000 people die due to suicide every year, which is one person every 40 seconds. Many more attempt suicide. Suicide occurs throughout the lifespan and is the second leading cause of death among 15-29 year olds globally.

Read: Broken Men: Males have a higher suicide rate than females

Depression: Let’s talk. The poster depicts a conversation between a mother and daughter Photo credit: WHO/Developed for use in campaign activities and beyond

I was 15 years old when I attempted to end my life by ingesting rat poison. I felt burdened by years of abuse. I also felt unloved, which placed me in a very vulnerable position. On that particular day, after school, I decided to end my suffering. This was not an impulsive decision; I had just not spent a long time planning how I would end my life. At the age of 15, I realised that the world around me was not kind to people who were suicidal or had tried to kill themselves. Some of the nurses at the clinic I was rushed to were the first to make this very clear to me. It felt as if their harsh treatment of me was meant to be a form of punishment for wanting to kill myself. As if this cold treatment was not enough, most of the people who visited me shamed me for trying to kill myself. In fact, people felt greater sympathy for my mother and never even tried to understand why I had decided to end my life; end my pain. My mother was a single, unemployed parent after my father passed away when I was 12, and all I was doing was adding to her burden of taking care of eight children, four of whom were still at school. Some people bluntly told me that I was crazy. One visitor even had the gall to tell me to pray for forgiveness because I had sinned. All this while I was still in hospital.

Read: Many Africans agree with Archbishop Desmond Tutu on assisted suicide: “Utata Tutu is right”

Two or three years later, I chanced upon an article in a magazine that referred to the fact that people who attempted suicide were very likely to do so again. If a person had garnered the courage to do it once, they would find the courage to do it again. At that point, I did not think I would ever go through that experience again – not after the hurtful reactions from the adults in my life after my first attempt. I had believed the things they told me then. Now, whatever challenges I was facing, I had to persevere and avoid becoming “a burden” to the people around me.

Several years later (in 2015), I found myself battling a serious case of depression. Personal circumstances, coupled with the overwhelming scars left by the years of abuse in my childhood, led me to eventually attempt to end my life again. Twice. I battled with constant suicide ideation and would be on Google often, researching all the painless ways to die. This time, though, I spoke openly about my battle with suicidal thoughts. Even though I was convinced that nothing would make me feel better, by openly talking about my battles, a part of me still hoped that I would get to a point where I felt better.

Photo: Empowerment Magazine

Being open about your personal struggles is scary because you can never be sure how people will react to that kind of vulnerability. While there were those who, thankfully, did not shame me for being suicidal, there were those who seemed to think that suicide was “stupid”. In fact, many people think so. Just as many believe that suicide is a sin because “only God who gives life can take it away”. And then there are those who believe that suicide is a selfish act because it leaves loved ones with the burden of dealing with the loss. Others believe that suicide and mental health issues are “White people’s problems” and that Black people “persevere and pray all their problems away”.

Guilt-tripping people into abandoning their suicidal thoughts does more harm than any intended good.

In addition, we tend to remind people that there are others who have even bigger problems and that we need to be grateful that “we don’t have it worse”. Guilt-tripping people into abandoning their suicidal thoughts does more harm than any intended good. Instead of helping someone feel better, this kind of “advice” only forces them to suppress their pain – and that is not a healthy way of dealing with our battles. Pain suppressed tends to manifest itself in other ways and can have an impact on our physical health, relationships and how we function in society.

We need to approach issues of mental health and suicide from a place of compassion that also focuses on the well-being of the person who is facing those struggles. We should not have to wait for certain prescribed days or the death of celebrities to have discussions on these issues. And we also should not restrict these conversations to online platforms. In every part of our community – our churches, schools, families – we need to create platforms where we can have frank conversations about these things. We need to constantly challenge our perceptions and the language we use when talking about mental health and suicide. Only then will we help eradicate the stigma surrounding these issues and make it easier for people to seek help or to open up when we check in with them.

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