Mr and Mrs Lagbaja are both retired civil servants and proud parents of 4 successful children who are professionals with well paid jobs all over the world. They felt fulfilled and content with life until everything came tumbling down. It was an sms from a hospital in Abuja, asking if they were the next of kin to their son in Abuja. With their hearts in their mouth, they couldn’t wait to type an sms in response but called the number immediately and affirmed that they were his parents. The doctor on the line was patient but they were impatient to find out what was wrong with their son and if they could speak with him. The doctor apologized but told them he was brought in dead by concerned neighbours who had to break into his apartment after some of the neighbours’ children had peeped into his flat and noticed he was lying down on the floor in an abnormal posture. The neighbours had called his line, knocked on the door but when he was not responding, they decided to break in.
The ultimate shocker for Mr and Mrs Lagbaja was the news that it appeared to have been a suicide death, as he left a note. They were devastated and felt defeated. How could they have so failed their son that he could not confide in them no matter the challenges he was facing? They would have walked on their heads, gone to the ends of the world and back to keep him alive. His mother was inconsolable, as she wailed that she would have happily died in his stead. How could this happen to her? What did she do to deserve this? How could she be expected to bury her own son? The siblings were also rocked as they had no clue that he had been battling with depression for several months.
Everyone was devastated and simply didn’t know what they could have done or how things deteriorated to the extent that he considered suicide. Some of his friends and colleagues who knew about his persisting feelings of sadness were sad that they didn’t insist that he goes to see a psychiatrist. He had always dismissed such suggestions for fear that he will be considered weak or be shamed as someone with mental illness. ‘I am not mad, and I will get out of this’, he would reassure them. How they wished they had not listened to him then.
What are the facts?
The World Health Organization declared suicide a public health emergency since 2012 and estimates that at least 1 suicide death occurs every 40 seconds. The commonest risk factor for suicide is depression (as well as other mental health challenges), accounting for 80 – 90% of cases.
Unfortunately, ignorance, shame and stigma continue to hold people back from seeking the professional care they need when depressed. We don’t recognize what depression is, or we downplay its severity, as we see in the story above. Others will refuse to be seen by a professional because of the associated shame and stigma of being labelled.
In so many of the discussions around suicide, especially in the light of yet another reported suicide death of a female professional, the emotional impact on the affected families is often missing. Some of the immediate emotional reactions for loved ones may include denial, anger, shock, feelings of guilt, frustration, resentment towards the departed as well as anyone that may potentially have been a trigger or source of stress, loneliness, and helplessness. The family members and close friends especially tend to feel inadequate and partly responsible for the victim’s suicide and often struggle with overcoming the feeling. In many instances, they may need therapy to overcome the grief.
Unfortunately, major news outlets as well as social media comments are usually oblivious of the emotional turmoil that the family and friends are forced to grapple with. The insensitivity of comments about what may have led to the suicide and passing judgement on the deceased as well their families and friends are simply not helpful. It is akin to sticking a knife into an open wound and then twisting it while the wound is still very raw. These comments are in the public space and will be read by friends and family of the deceased. If such an individual were to be your family member, would you be pleased to read such comments online? We can and should be doing better.
The #unashamed campaign of the Asido Foundation to counter the shame and stigma of mental illness in our society is greatly needed at this time, to encourage people to seek for help and not be shamed into suffering in silence. Or dying from preventable suicide due to mental ill-health. Visit www.asidofundation.com/unashamed and sign up to support the campaign against shame and stigma around mental illness.
Dr Jibril Abdulmalik
Tribune Article for the column “Your Mental Health & You”
Thursday, 2nd June 2022