Island News

The Problem of Suicide

Written By : MICHAEL SMITH Ex-US Peace Corps volunteer. In December, 2009 my nephew, Stephen Simonds, committed suicide. On a deserted cul-de-sac (a dead-end road, ironically) in a small southeast
11 Dec 2010 12:00

image Written By : MICHAEL SMITH Ex-US Peace Corps volunteer. In December, 2009 my nephew, Stephen Simonds, committed suicide.
On a deserted cul-de-sac (a dead-end road, ironically) in a small southeast US city, he found a quiet spot, parked his truck, and ended his life.
For Stephen, the unbearable guilt of a divorce, the sense that he was a failed parent to his 12-year old son and the lack of any apparent hope for the future, led to a final decision.
I write this article on the anniversary of his death to honour his abbreviated life, and in the hope that these words will stir someone in Fiji to give a second look at the trail of events that ends in a person deciding to terminate his own life.
That decision was made by almost 200 Fijians last year.
That decision is being made now, as you read this, perhaps by someone you love.
For families and friends of my nephew Stephen, his death left profound grief and guilt.
It also created a host of practical problems: financial and relational and logistical.
A fathering role was abandoned, an income lost, and loving friends deserted.
For Stephen, however, and for many other suicide “victims”, suicide is viewed as a solution, not a problem.
It is often seen as the only way out of intolerable psychological pain or the only way to avoid a life circumstance that is considered a “fate worse than death”.
However, the reality is that suicide is a permanent solution to (in most instances) a temporary problem.
Feeling like a failure as father can be intolerable.
In Fiji the problems cited in police suicide reports in 2008 suggest other failures, some sounding surprisingly simple:
l “Was angry at husband for going to work without informing her”
l “After a dispute with his wife”
l “After an argument with younger brother”
l “Worried about her form Six results”
For others, we might feel a stronger empathy for the pain involved:
l “He could not find a job”
l “After being informed by her husband that he’s not the father of her child”
l “She could not take the pressure as her boyfriend committed suicide earlier”
l “Deceased could not stand the pressure of serving two clans in his village”
Not long after arriving in Suva in July, I was in a conversation with a Fijian man who, after some hesitation, acknowledged that his step-brother had committed suicide in 2008.
He admitted having been on the brink of the same act when something happened inside to stop him…
In reviewing suicide data later as part of my Peace Corps placement in the mental health section of the Health Ministry, I found the name.
He, the step-brother, had killed himself because the family had broken up.
For this and other cryptic police summaries there is a story with a trajectory that starts with a mother and a birth, a happy or unhappy childhood, hopes for a life worth living, disappointments, complications, despair, hopelessness, and, lastly, giving up.
There were decisions all along the way, leading to the final one to, as it were, release their flimsy grip on hope.
Some will say they don’t understand how it is possible for people to kill themselves.
And yet we know that a significant percentage of people will, from time to time, have thoughts of killing themselves. Looking at our larger global village says something about the extent of suicide.
According to the World Health Organization, every year, almost one million people die from suicide; a “global” mortality rate of 16 per 100,000, or one death every 40 seconds.
l From Page 2

In the last 45 years suicide rates have increased by 60 per cent worldwide.
Suicide is among the three leading causes of death among those aged 15-44 years in some countries, and the second leading cause of death in the 10-24 years age group; these figures do not include suicide attempts which are up to 20 times more frequent than completed suicide.
So, every year a group of people equivalent to the population of the Philippines, silently disappears.
It is as if a war is raging around us in the dark: a war with despair, another silent killer.
In Germany, there is a suicide attempt every four minutes and, every 45 minutes, one of them is successful.
Suicide in the United States is the 11th leading cause of death.
It was the seventh leading cause of death for males, and 16th leading cause of death for females.
Sometime suicide is not so quiet.
In Taiwan this year, 10 Chinese workers at a telephone technology company have committed very public suicides this year.
These dramatic gestures have raised questions as to whether the work conditions at the huge and extremely strict company are responsible for the deaths and whether we, as consumers of those products, should bear some responsibility as well.
Suicide is not reserved for the weird, crazy or bizarre.
It is usually for those just like us who, due to life circumstances, find themselves in situations which produce unbearable emotional pain or social stigma and isolation.
“There but for the grace of God, go I” may be the best way to summarise what distinguishes me or you from those whose loads seem too heavy for them to carry.
And it is often those who feel generally responsible who cannot bear the shame of failure to live up to life’s demands. In India, for example, an estimated 150,000 debt-ridden farmers have given in to suicide since 1997.
Perhaps we don’t have to stretch our thinking too far to understand why some people give up.
For some it is a way to end the chronic pain of disease.
For others it ends a flood of guilt, shame, and desperation.
Certainly that seemed to be the case for Stephen, my nephew.
But a new paper published in Psychological Review proposes a fairly simple answer: People kill themselves when they a) feel alone and b) feel that they are a burden to others.
The overlap of those two factors-which the paper calls “thwarted belongingness” and “perceived burdensomeness”-combined with access to an effective method of suicide creates the right environment for killing oneself.
It’s not just lonely people, the paper contends, but lonely people who think they are a burden who are most at risk.
The authors of the paper are proposing that the same mechanism underlies most suicides.
If this is true, it might change how we go about preventing them.
There is aloneness in the aftermath of a divorce, the breakup of a family, and failures in career and love.
For Stephen, my nephew, life became too heavy for him to carry any longer.
Fears and doubts experienced alone are always more intense than those shared with others.
Here in Fiji, the awareness of being an island nation has the potential to increase the sense of aloneness or to strengthen a sense of community.
Perhaps those in Fiji who decide to terminate their lives are telling us something, something about how we can respond to the loneliness of others, and how we can strengthen the Fijian sense of community. Perhaps we can listen.
l (Michael Smith is a Peace Corps Volunteer from North Carolina in the USA. He is a licensed clinical social worker who has worked in mental health for about 35 years; and member of the Fiji Alliance for Mental Health (FAMH))


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