NOT PUBLIC HEALTH PRIORITY

Grey area between suicide and safety

The country is plagued with severe underestimates of suicide

In Summary

• Suicide does not fall on the list of priorities as a public health problem

• Despite police officers being the first on suicide scenes, it is unlikely for such an officer to record the intent of the death, unless there is a suicide note

Joseph Maina, the father of Joyce Wanjiru, who allegedly murdered her family and committed suicide in Thome on July 10, 2019
Joseph Maina, the father of Joyce Wanjiru, who allegedly murdered her family and committed suicide in Thome on July 10, 2019
Image: FAITH MUTEGI

It is estimated that over 800,000 people die as a result of suicide globally every year, with many suicide attempts for every successful death according to WHO. In Kenya, the number of suicides has been spiking since 2008.

However, suicide does not fall on the list of priorities as a public health problem. A 2017 performance audit report from the Office of the Auditor-General on the state of mental health painted a grim picture, with mistreatment of mentally ill patients and misdiagnosis leading to wrong treatment. As a result, many cases are unattended to, with no clear way to track deaths as a result of suicide.

Police spokesman Charles Owino says despite policemen being the first on suicide scenes, it is unlikely for such an officer to record the intent of the death, unless there is a suicide note.

 

“One cannot record a case as a suicide unless there is a note to justify it. Otherwise, an investigation has to be opened to find out the circumstances surrounding the death,” Owino said.

He said since some deaths are fuzzy, such as falling from a building or drowning in a river, it is hard to establish whether they are suicidal deaths or accidents.

However, many people have suicidal thoughts without a plan to harm themselves for short or long periods of time. Psychotherapist Dr Kirindi Odindo says during difficulties, sometimes all a person needs is a listening ear, a shoulder to lean on or counselling. Some people though, present dark thoughts and ideas, with feelings of suffocation, drowning, or inner constant pain, a state victims claim can only be ended through death.

To the late Gitonga Javan, who had attempted suicide two times before finally dying, his was a dark and painful world full of loneliness and misery. Gitonga was in a grey area, constantly drifting between life and death, a state his relatives watched in despair and silence.

Owino says the stigma surrounding suicide and the law make it hard for people to seek help. According to the Penal Code Section 226, any person who attempts to kill himself is guilty of a misdemeanour. Owino, however, said verbal allegations could not be charged, encouraging suicidal people to seek help. “We are living in hard economic times, with high rates of unemployment. Anyone suffering should not be scared to seek for help,” Owino said.

Dr Odindo says we need to have effective and evidence-based suicide surveillance mechanisms. “With no clear guidelines on handling suicidal attempts, the country stares at a constant cause of unnecessary alarm or severe underestimates in the event of death through suicide,” he said, speaking to artistes about mental health at the Kenya National Theatre.