by Vidyaratha Kissoon
Young black woman and young coolie man laughed in that could-not-help-ourselves way, in the minibus driven by a man who face say that he not laughing at nothing. We were talking about suicide and how we tell the stories and try to understand the causes. I had made remarks like yeah.. I mean.. you lef yuh house and pass nuff nuff place where yuh could end yuh life and go somewhere far.. dat is determination…
It is not proper to laugh about suicide or death really in many circles. What seems proper in Guyana though is to dig into the details of the life of persons who have taken their own lives and give some prominence and fame even to them. What seems proper in Guyana too is to go around in a quicksand of finger pointing and posturing over who is to do what about preventing suicide every time there is a suicide. The PPP even had strategies which as with so many others, they never bothered with after launching, and the present Government in one of the Unity moments with the PPP also launched a plan .
Why why why..
The people I know who have talked about killing themselves are from all walks of life. One of the most popular guys in my University circle, men who were smart, active and socially aware , women surviving abusive relationships.
Suicide ideation – talking about suicide is prevalent it seems. The people who have attempted suicide and who have taken their own lives are from all walks of life – male, female, transgender, young, not so young, rich, poor, educated, not so educated. Employed, not employed. Straight, gay. Seemingly in fine physical health. Persons of deep faith, persons of “so so” faith. People who were in school same time as me.
The consensus is that generally persons who take their own lives want an end to whatever pain they are experiencing. The consensus is that many other people tend to be like.. eh.. dat is what you gun kill yuhself for?
We have heroic myths of Old Kaie sacrificing himself in our literature – the Legend of Kaieteur. Professor Mark McWatt and others talked about the Old Kaie story at the Edgar Mittelholzer Lecture on Friday 27 November.
Edgar Mittelholzer, born in Guyana, is described as the “Caribbean’s first prolific novelist”. He had a brilliant mind. He dedicated one of his novels to the publishers who had rejected his manuscripts. In 1965, he set fire to himself much like what one of his characters did.
Two years later in newly Independent Guyana, A J Seymour launched the Edgar Mittelholzer Lecture Series .
A J Seymour had written the Legend of Kaieteur which starts like this
“Now Makonaima, the Great Spirit dwelt
In the huge mountain rock that throbbed and felt
The swift black waters of Potaro’s race
Pause on the lip, commit themselves to space
And dive the half mile to the rocks beneath.
Black were the rocks with sharp and angry teeth
And on those rocks the eager waters died,…
Poetry of course about eager waters dying. In reality, water tends to flow.
Every November, some media outlet in the USA and elsewhere will mention Guyana for a suicide event. Some people think that there is potential to memorialize that event for “dark” tourism .
It must be a contradiction in Guyana, that we want to lament that we have one of the highest suicide rates in the world, while on the other hand we want to make some money from a different kind of “suicide tourism” which is not about euthanasia.
In some countries, it is now legal for persons to choose to end their lives . There are procedures. Guyana has not liberated itself from the laws against suicide. Guyana’s former colonial masters decriminalised suicide in 1961 but as with so many other oppressive laws, we are holding on.
People are charged for attempted suicide. As with many things, the existence of the laws does not seem to impact on the prevention.
A woman asks me if it is true that ‘Hindus commit the majority of suicides in Guyana” . Pandits on TV and elsewhere go to great length to say that suicide will not lead to happiness in the after life. There is a lot of talk about ‘weakness’ and prayer and sometimes counselling.
Other persons talk about how the belief in reincarnation drives Hindus to seek the after life before they should.
Paulette Henry from the University of Guyana published some research in an article “Agrochemicals, Suicide Ideation and Social Responsibility” .
The research concluded that there is a direct correlation between the overexposure to agrochemicals and suicide in Guyana and called for enforcement of protocols and other interventions to prevent people from drinking the agrochemicals. I heard one story about a man who mixes the poison with rum and who has survived three attempts. The person telling the story talked about how the man tried to avoid paying the fine for attempted suicide. There was no part of the story about any help the man got to stop him from mixing poison with his rum.
Last night I told a young taxi driver not to text and drive. There are some attitudes to road safety, violence non-communicable diseases and personal well being which seem to reflect a lack of concern about life which might not be as fast as suicide but which seem to have the same end result.
Suicide as news…
In Guyana there has been no researched evidence of copycat suicides, though who is to know since research does not seem to inform much of how we approach anything.
There are reporting guidelines around the world. For example the Good Samaritans in the United Kingdom and the Australian Press Council encourage reporting which will increase public awareness about what could be done to prevent suicide and include references to places for help.
Needless to say, none of the news stories about the recent suicides in Guyana did not include or conclude with the actions readers could take to prevent suicide.
There have been stories about suicide prevention, but these are not as juicy as say the stories about the speculation about the personal lives of those who took their own lives. Since people are more likely to read the stories of the people who took their own lives, then it would be a good practice for the editors and journalists to insert the actions which people could take to prevent suicide – such as phone numbers for help lines, addresses of places to go, etc.
Making suicide a political thing…
I had a moment recently wondering what it would be like, if I could find a way to make a big fire in the crowded noisy public office, when the public servant told me that I had to go on a run around to sort out a minor document issue. Guyanese have not taken to suicide bombings; the last hunger strike was in 2001 or 2002 when a young (Hindu) man at the University of Guyana was protesting to get a room for the University of Guyana Hindu Society.
Since there is a feeling that it is mostly coolie people who kill themselves, the finger pointing tends to get very deep as a recent letter exchange in the Stabroek News demonstrated. None of the reports of the recent coolie suicides though indicate that Burnham had anything to do with it.
Where is God in all this..?
In May 2014, the Bethel Gospel Hall on Camp Street was the venue for a Suicide Prevention Conference. The organisers and I have been on different sides of human rights debates. One pastor who spoke started off by saying “I do not know why I am here at a suicide prevention conference because I was not able to prevent my wife’s suicide’. There were religious discussions and medical discussions. There was an honest question “When do we know it is a demon, and when do we know it is medical?’ There were stories from survivors about the kinds of things which helped them. The people offering help did not seem interested in the power that it brought and there was no judgement as frequently happens when God is invoked.
I had asked one Hindu leader if he could convene a mental health round table in a similar fashion which works as a start to provide solutions. That has not happened as yet, there are more pressing issues for Hindus as the public knows.
The young woman in the bus said that she felt that suicide had to do with weak spirit and lack of faith. She said she would refer any person she thought was depressed or contemplating self harm to Help & Shelter.
Years ago a smart woman had fallen on hard times. She had to borrow money, which she could not repay and then she stole money from her work place. I met her when she was getting ready to end her life and was completely distressed. The woman who led the intervention was very practical. Who was the lender of the money? Could we negotiate the loan? What was needed in the short term and medium term. The woman got through that episode in her life. It was an important lesson in helping.
Many people have said they are willing to give an ear and a shoulder. It is not easy though to listen. Listening is a skill and an art, and many well meaning friends could be frustrated or be uncomfortable.
One woman in an email wrote about “getting things off my chest to someone who will not be burdened by the information.”
There are many approaches to counselling and psychotherapy and treatment. I have cringed at the comments from some people who describe themselves as psychologists and mental health professionals.
There are no national guidelines for counselling ethics and standards. I am very nervous about recommending people. I know one very religious Christian woman whose politics are very different from mine. I think she is a very warm and compassionate person and I could see myself going to her if I need help as she has helped in some of our ad hoc encounters.
I know people go and do religious rituals and feel better. Some do not feel better. So it is not easy: sorting out the helping thing.
The tragedy about the places for help is that they remain unknown. There is a more aggressive campaign in our media to push the liquor to numb the pain or the consumer ads which drive the feelings of inadequacy rather than the information about the largely underfunded efforts to help persons who want to get through bad times.
There are some places described here which offer help. There are places which have been missed – the list is not necessarily complete. There is no judgement about the quality of services offered.
The Guyana Inter-agency Suicide Helpline operates 24 hours, and is organised by the Guyana Police Force. Unlike the 911, the numbers seem to still work.
Telephone -223-0001, 223-0009, 223-0818
Cellphone – 600-7896, 623-4444
Email – firstname.lastname@example.org
Bbm pin – 2BE55649, 2BE56020
Twitter – @guyanaagency
Whatsapp – 592-600-7896 592-623-4444
The Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation has a Psychiatric Clinic. I was told by the man who answered the phone that they will attend to persons without referrals on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings. I don’t know if other persons would insist on referrals. The man had an accent so I hope he understood my questions.
Referrals, some kinds of counselling, public education and awareness are offered by the following :-
- Crossroad Suicide & Mental Health Awareness Services Tel : 231 4328
- Guyana Foundation – Tel – 276-3057
- Help & Shelter – 225-4731, 227-3454
- Roadside Baptist Skills Training Centre (Region 6) – 338-4215/4213
Persons who are distressed, fed up, frustrated about the drinking habits of their loved ones can contact
Al-Anon Family Group
Tel Nicky 600-0832 , Joanne 619-4835
Preventing suicide means working on promoting mental health and wellness. . I believe that a person should have a right to choose the way they want to die but I have seen how people who have thought of taking their own lives and who have attempted to do so have come through. I also believe that all of the people I know who took their own lives would have been able to make a different choice if they had reliable access to non-judgmental helping services.