Tiffanie DeBartolo in How to Kill a Rock Star had this to say. “Did you really want to die? No one commits suicide because they want to die. Then why do they do it? Because they want to stop the pain.”
Sometime in 1994, whilst in my undergraduate years, I received a phone call from my father late in the night the content of which I will never forget. His request was for me to come to pick him up as the police had attended our home on KNUST campus. With a mixture of anxiety and apprehension, I drove from the University Hall and got home to the news that one of his staff who had just returned from studying abroad had been found dead in his hotel room. Together we drove to the hotel, the scene that greeted me is one I can never erase from my memory. On the floor in a pool of white foaming vomit lay a man I knew very well. Next to him was a glass and some leftover tablets. He was a biochemist and had thought this one through.
The policemen took statements from the hotel staff and arranged the evacuation of his mortal remains to the mortuary. He had no immediate family close by so the onus fell on my father to inform his family in the morning. When this happened, there was the shock and wailing that accompanies sudden death. Out of the blue, an elderly man rebuked those in grief, claiming the deceased was selfish and had taken the easy way out. Even amongst the intellectual fraternity within the university, he was deemed a coward. I questioned my Dad on his views about the incident, this was what he had to say. “Suicide is neither an easy option or an act of cowardice. It is rather a reaction to an incident that can often be traced to a mental imbalance either chronic or transient. I advise that you read about it rather than form your views based on societal norms.”
This was the beginning of my journey into understanding one of the most stigmatised life endings in our society. Since the year 2000, suicide rates in Ghana has been increasing. From a figure of 4.30 deaths per 100,000 citizens, it had increased by 23.25% to 5.30 per 100,000 in 2016 and increased further by 9.4% to 5.8 per 100,000 by the end of 2018. Meaning in 2018, 1,740 Ghanaians took their own lives. The prevalence of this phenomenon is highest amongst males with 9.1 males in 100,000 choosing this option compared with 2.1 females in 100,000. This trend is in line with the suicide rate gender split found in most developed countries.
It is known that three times more people attempt suicide than those who succeed and that even more contemplate this act but never carry it out. I leave readers to work out on this basis how many people who potentially could have been incarcerated under our penal code for an act that should never pass as a crime.
Suicidal behaviours are complex and not easily explained. Several factors ranging from social, psychological, and cultural singularly or through intrinsic interactions lead a person to suicidal thoughts or behaviour. Thus, often the final act is after considerable thought but on occasion can be impulsive too. The main determinants of whether one with suicidal thoughts will actually carry these through are their ability to access help in a timely manner, coupled with the level of support they receive during the period as well as the level of media reportage that suicides receive and the extent to which the mental health, substance abuse and suicidal ideation are stigmatised.
It is known that three times more people attempt suicide than those who succeed and that even more contemplate this act but never carry it out.
In a country where mental health and all its associations are ill funded and the stigma is huge, it is therefore incredulous that rather than work to improve the situation, many still believe that this act is in the least demonic and at worst criminal. Can it not be argued that if there is any criminality at play it’s the state and those who fan the flame of mental health stigma who are the real criminals? Can actions that put barriers in the way of those who need help thus driving them to the point of suicide not be tantamount to manslaughter? If these are to be argued then is the above not enough reason that this aspect of our criminal code has outlived its usefulness?
Why then can a Deputy Speaker of Ghana’s Parliament argue that, since nobody has ever been prosecuted in the country for attempting to commit suicide, the demands for a change in the law are needless? Does he not realise that the very existence of that law ensures that many who contemplate suicide do not seek help and strive to succeed? Is that in itself not compounding a problem that is on the rise? Is he not aware that in a country where poverty is rife and the gap between the haves and have nots is widening the pressures on both in a society increases the propensity for suicidal thoughts to manifest?
Even more worrying is the view of the Minority Leader Haruna Iddrisu who argues that the status quo be maintained. Hear him, “I disagree that we should decriminalise suicide. Unacceptable behaviour must be punished and deterred, you don’t want a society where you encourage young children that if they have a problem, they can kill themselves. Which society develops that way?” Does the medical evidence support his view that suicide is unacceptable behaviour? Has he bothered to acquaint himself with the drivers that contribute to suicide?
The young academic who passed away on that fateful night had just completed his PhD. He had a lot of life ahead of him and the potential to contribute through intellectual knowledge transfer, research, taxes and the training of other academics to the development of Ghana.
Many in our legislature backing the trend of the general population are unschooled about matters relating to mental health and need to urgently unlearn this foul narrative. In doing so, they must understand that on the contrary societies that are developing at tremendous pace are doing this thanks to many of their leading brains in academia, politics, business, medical and legal fraternities who have been suicidal themselves but found help, were not stigmatised, were giving a way out and are now returning the favour through their positive contributions they make to their country’s economies.
The young academic who passed away on that fateful night had just completed his PhD. He had a lot of life ahead of him and the potential to contribute through intellectual knowledge transfer, research, taxes and the training of other academics to the development of Ghana. Sadly, we lost this contribution because he didn’t seek help or if he did could not access it for some of the reasons I earlier enumerated. I owe it to his memory and to the memory of many others who have passed away to speak up against the near tyranny that some in our legislative house may be engaging in as far as the decriminalisation of suicide is concerned.
Those who commit or contemplate suicide are not criminals, neither do they want to die. By all indications, they choose this option because they want to end their pain whether real or imaginary. It is our responsibility to help assuage their pain. As the nation undergoes further development, we cannot help but accept that if we do not change our perceptions around mental health in general and suicide, in particular, we would soon become yesterday’s country in tomorrow’s world.
By Kwame Sarpong Asiedu