A little over two years ago, a 51-year-old woman was arraigned before a Lagos State magistrate's court under section 372 of the Nigerian penal code.
She reportedly became depressed after being defrauded of about N18.7 million. Unable to go on further, she attempted to end her life. It is quite ironic that she was granted bail to the tune of N500,000 – no doubt putting further strain on her finances and her fragile mental state.
This is not the first time this draconian law has been used to further criminalize and shame some of the most vulnerable amongst us, and if one of the suggestions put forward by the Coordinator for Suicide Research and Prevention Initiative (SURPIN), Raphael Ogbolu is anything to go by, it certainly wouldn’t be the last. This is a worrisome prospect. Whilst the logical step would be to deploy services that de-stigmatizes mental illness and where none existed, create laws to curb the declining state of mental health services, Nigeria is calling for stricter implementation of the laws that already exist to criminalize, isolate, discriminate and distress persons with mental illness.
An increase in death by suicide in Nigeria?
The media has been replete with reports of death by suicide, with victims as diverse as their methods. This has led many to conclude there is a proliferation of death by suicide, calling for an urgent action to curb the spate.
Whether there is indeed an increase in the rate of suicide is yet to be ascertained. While official figures for suicides in Nigeria are non-existent at the least and abysmal at best, the fact reports about suicide has become a daily news staple suggests we may have a public health crises on our hands.
Research suggesting the official figures for deaths by suicide in Nigeria is largely unchanged offers no reassurances.
In the absence of official figures, one may only surmise that there is either an increase in suicide rates or attitudes to death by suicide has changed considerably so that people are more open to reporting such deaths.
Whatever the case, a unique opportunity presents itself that the Nigerian government can maximize in showing it is a forward-facing country by tackling the stigma still surrounding mental illness head-on. However, we cannot afford to throw darts in the dark or contemplate kneejerk solutions, for any intervention to be fit for purpose, we must first consider why people might resort to suicide and what enabling factors are present, thus facilitating death by suicide.
Why do people die by suicide?
When I discuss the suicide of a young person with some Nigerians, the question that inevitably follows is ‘what could have led them to kill themselves?’ As though - being a Nigerian youth living in a country that shows little or no regard for the lives, safety, the wellbeing of citizens, where young people are gunned down in the streets and women are harassed, arrested, assaulted and raped by those sworn to protect their lives and their rights, where universities are shut for more than a year due to strike action, where doctors have no choice but break their Hippocratic oath to protest no/low pay, where herdsmen invade communities in a concerted, coordinated attack, leaving bloodshed in their wake, where politicians are continually recycled and the only real chance at success, sometimes, is to migrate, dabble into criminality or begin the onerous climb up the greasy pole of politics – is not enough to drive anyone over the edge of sanity, despair, utter helplessness; suicide.
If this is the Nigerian dream, I dread to think what the nightmare looks like
Of course, to suggest these are the only reasons people contemplate suicide may be oversimplifying the complexity that surrounds mental illness as biological/physiological and environmental/cultural factors play a key role. Whatever the underlying cause of suicide, criminalization and stigmatization is certainly not the solution.
A case for de-criminalizing suicide
Sometimes, I wonder if the criminalization of suicide is an excuse to punish people despondent enough to attempt suicide – as though leaving the bleak reality that is Nigeria behind is a sin against the millions left behind. Other times, I am tempted to think that Nigeria lacks the will to address the rot that is gnarling away at her development, thereby taking the cowards way out by pushing for further criminalization of suicide, because to not do this, means the government finally need to address the youth unemployment, poverty, corruption, and put support services in place to ensure that people with mental illness, drugs, and alcohol problems are given the support they need.
De-criminalizing suicide means regulating the sale of poisons, pharmaceuticals and firearms commonly used to self-harm, ensuring strict laws are in place, implemented and monitored to the fullest extent when it pertains to controlled substances; recognizing the debilitating effect of mental illness, creating laws that criminalize the discrimination and exclusion of people who are mentally ill. Funding more dedicated mental health services thereby acknowledging that there is a problem that needs to be addressed, creating more outlets to discuss the despair people face, training religious leaders who provide pastoral support on using their privileged position to make referrals.
In addition, the government should invest in the training and equipping of first responders, such as police officers who are often a first line resource for people who have significant mental health, emotional, or substance abuse problems and who may be suicidal, with the skills and know how to offer support and spot the signs and symptoms of serious mental illness, identifying risk factors associated with suicide such as childhood abuse, loss of a loved one, joblessness and loss of economic security, and other cultural and societal influences.
It is also important to change the way suicide is reported. For example, to say ‘one committed’ suicide suggests a crime, blames victims and refuses to acknowledge suicide as the consequence of an undiagnosed or untreated mental illness. opting for ‘death by suicide’ instead.
Another thing is to address unemployment, especially among the youths who make up over 60 percent of the population, head-on, finding lasting solutions to extreme poverty - half of the population currently live on less than $1.90 a day.
While criminalization of suicide may have driven it underground, with the stigma associated with such deaths playing a role in underreporting, de-criminalization, on the other hand, could encourage more people with suicidal ideation and failed suicide attempters to seek the help they clearly desperately need in developing coping skills, social support, and close relationships.
What more, we may finally, grasp the enormity of the problem and begin crafting solutions that are best suited to solve them.
Vweta Chadwick is a Social Worker who has dedicated the last 15 years towards finding solutions to some of the most pertinent problems confronting women and girls in Africa, through Project ASHA.