Suicide robbing Africa its most productive generation

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  • Suicide has become a major urgent public health crisis in the continent and has led to the premature death of especially productive youth in their prime
  • Nigeria’s rate of deaths by suicide is ranked the highest in West Africa, fifth in Africa and 15th in the world
  • Kenya was ranked the most depressed country in Africa with 4.4 per cent of the population suffering from depression

Africa has been hailed as the new business frontier for global growth in the world economy, on the cusp of an innovation revolution.

As such investors, multinational corporations, foreign governments and start-ups are rushing to make hay while the sun shines by promoting intercourse with countries across the continent, identifying and evaluating novel approaches to business in order to tap into potential opportunities.

In reiteration at the World Economic Forum earlier this year, leaders were called upon to venture into the continent and seize the windows of opportunity therein ultimately spurring development.  

While this is fantastic news heralding a brighter future for the continent, it is utterly unfortunate that the workforce to propel the continent into this new age is in grave peril, if the recent alarming spike in suicide cases by the youth populace, brimming with potential across the continent, is anything to go by.

Countless young people from different corners of the continent have been resorting to taking a leap into the dark abyss, as their way out of all manner of hardships, depriving Africa of untold talent that could have been channelled towards the prosperity of the continent in different spheres.  

Suicide has become a major urgent public health crisis in the continent and has led to the premature death of especially productive youth in their prime—the future builders of the continent.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 700,000 persons die by suicide every year globally and it is the fourth leading cause of death among 15 to 29-year olds.  From job losses, trauma, abuse, mental health disorders and barriers to accessing health care these are just but a few triggers to committing suicide by many millennials. 

Taking charge of mental health

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The upcoming World Mental Health Day is an opportune time to spark conversations pertinently among the youth about coping mechanisms. Although suicide itself is not a mental disorder it has been identified as a major risk factor of mental illness. 

‘Mental health in an unequal world is the theme chosen for 2021, to highlight that access to mental health services remains unequal, with between 75 per cent to 95 per cent people with mental disorders in low-and middle-income countries unable to access mental health services. It’s a day to enable the world to focus on the issues that perpetuate mental health inequality. The campaign provides a premise for the world to come together and act to highlight how inequality can be addressed, to ensure people are able to enjoy good mental health.

By the same token, World Suicide Prevention Day recently passed and the theme for this year was ‘creating hope through action’ which focused on the need for collective action to address the issue. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to a shocking skyrocketing of suicide cases. According to the WHO, suicides happen impulsively in moments of crisis with a breakdown in the ability to deal with life stresses, such as financial problems, relationship breakup, loss or chronic pain and illness. Malawi has recorded a 57 per cent increase in suicides since the onset of the pandemic. In a recent report by the Social Observatory of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, 12 suicide attempts were reported last month and over 50 per cent of the cases were among people aged between 26 and 35.

In South Africa, there are an estimated 23 suicides per day and for every one of them, there are at least 20 attempted suicides with men four times more likely to die by suicide than women. In the World Population Review, Kenya was ranked 114 out of 175 countries of nations where suicide rates are the highest in the world; the study was conducted before the pandemic exacerbated the problem in the country which had a rate of at least 6.5 suicides per 1,000,000 people. In addition, WHO had in 2017 ranked Kenya as the most depressed country in Africa with 4.4 per cent of the population suffering from it with a majority of the victims being men. 

A report by WHO indicates that Nigeria’s rate of deaths by suicide is ranked the highest in West Africa, fifth in Africa and 15th in the world. Recently WHO published guidance that supports national efforts to help reduce the global suicide rate by one-third by 2030, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals. During the World Health Assembly in May 2021, governments from around the world recognized the need to scale up quality mental health services at all levels.

A report by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights indicates that structural determinants of mental ill-health such as extreme poverty, lack of access to empowerment opportunities and discrimination increase the likelihood of individuals committing suicide. 

Stigma around mental health in Africa 

Studies indicate that the quality of care provided to people with mental health problems in the continent is inadequate. Matters of mental health have almost been taboo across many African societies with those suffering from mental health issues facing stigma and discrimination; which reverberates to all other aspects of life. Statistics from the World Bank puts suicide mortality rates in Kenya at 6.1 people in every 100,000 with men being in the highest category, at 9.1 to every 100,000. This is the case for men because of existing stereotypes that men cannot be vulnerable and should not display their emotions. The result is bottling up problems and emotions which is a ticking time bomb bound to explode.  

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Viable Solutions 

Urgent concrete action from all elements of society is needed for these untimely deaths to cease and for the future citizens of the continent to thrive. Suicide prevention is possible and raising awareness, spreading education and information is utterly critical. The more awareness generated the greater the impact on suicide prevention. Time could not be ripe to furnish ourselves with knowledge and equip ourselves with tools that can prevent suicide and save lives. Spearheading this should be healthcare professionals who should proactively take up leadership roles geared towards suicide prevention, to save the lives of millions of young people in the continent. The root causes of suicide need to be addressed with effective approaches such as inculcating and fostering social-emotional skills pertinently among the youth and decreasing the stigmatization regarding suicide. 

Governments across the continent need to create and invest in comprehensive national strategies to ameliorate suicide prevention and care. For instance, the Ministry of Health in Kenya is in the process of developing a National Suicide Prevention Strategy and Program between now and 2026, in line with the guidelines stipulated by WHO. The program shall inculcate a free hotline for suicide prevention and psychological support. 

The inclusion of adequate budgetary allocations by governments should be mandatory. The lack of investment in mental health disproportionate to the overall health budget contributes to the widening of the mental health treatment gap.  Engagement of the clergy and other religious leaders to serve as ‘gatekeepers since they are close with members of the society could also help in pinpointing suicidal individuals and offering the needed assistance. Communication is of paramount importance because it is a conduit to air out issues, in tandem raising solutions to some bottled-up emotions that if ignored could lead to suicide.  

The brother’s and sister’s keeper strategy is additionally very vital in identifying suicidal individuals, be it be friends, relatives or even workmates. Behavioural and verbal warning signs for suicide in people include feeling extremely sad, guilty, ashamed, angry, anxious, hopeless, trapped, empty, like a burden to others, staying aloof, showing extreme mood swings researching on ways to die, talking about wanting to die, overly using of drugs or alcohol.

Anyone who detects the signs in themselves or someone they know should seek help from a health care professional. Limiting access to means of suicide such as firearms and pesticides could additionally be a vital prevention measure. 

For Africa to realize its full potential, it needs its youth populace to build it to avert history from repeating itself with another ‘scramble and partition of Africa as had occurred between 1881 to 1900 during the new imperialism period where western nations rushed into the continent to extract its wealth to build and fuel the prosperity of their native nations neglecting Africa.

Therefore, it is of paramount importance that African youth are saved from suicidal tendencies and get empowered as they are the torch-bearers of the continent’s future development and prosperity.

Read: Africa: Why Covid-19 impact is beyond healthcare

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