SHALINI BHALLA: Time to talk about suicide

This is one of the ways in which Kenya is lagging behind the rest of the world when it comes to mental health provision.

In Summary

•I first learnt of his death on social media, and thereafter began to read all the reports across the media. The more I read, the more upset I got.

•The language being used to talk about his death was not constructive or helpful.

A noose
A noose
Image: /COURTESY

The death by suicide of my colleague Alex Murimi aka DJ Lithium has shocked me to the core. Alex was my producer on Capital FM’s Mindfulness, Music and More – a show, ironically, about mental health issues. Over three seasons he gave me the support I needed to deliver 60 shows that continued to grow in popularity as a podcast. We were both looking forward to starting a new season this February – or so I thought.

I first learnt of his death on social media, and thereafter began to read all the reports across the media. The more I read, the more upset I got. The language being used to talk about his death was not constructive or helpful.

With headlines by mainstream media like The Star’s ‘DJ Lithium Commits Suicide at Capital FM Offices’ and some media reporting the Capital FM offices as ‘a crime scene’ because that is where Alex was at the time of his death, shows us the need to address this issue urgently.

To ‘commit suicide’ has criminal overtones which refer to it being illegal to kill oneself. In Kenya, it is indeed illegal to kill oneself or attempt to do so – a law that is outdated and needs to be repealed. Decriminalisation of suicide needs to be brought to the fore urgently.

In May 2021 I interviewed Dr Frank Njenga, Presidential Advisor for Mental Health here in Kenya. He said “Section 226 provides for the imprisonment of people who attempt to kill themselves. We hold the view that people who have depression have an illness and should be taken to hospital and not prison.” He went on to say that this law would be repealed during the current government’s term. It has yet to be repealed.

This is one of the ways in which Kenya is lagging behind the rest of the world when it comes to mental health provision, awareness raising and the way we engage with the population. This is due to lack of time and resources allocated to mental health, leading to an increase in stigma.

Another glaring issue is the lack of meaningful and open dialogue and education around mental health issues.

So how should we be talking about suicide? As more and more people die by suicide, it is important that we don’t shy away from this subject, and learn to talk about it openly and sensitively. Terms such as ‘committed suicide’, ‘completed suicide’, ‘successful suicide’ or ‘failed suicide’ have underlying, negative connotations, increasing stigma. We need to replace these terms with ‘death by suicide’ and ‘non-fatal suicide attempt’ or quite simply ‘died by suicide’ and ‘suicide’. These may feel blunt and clumsy to begin with – but they are terms we need to get used to – and quickly.

Changing this language is important not only for those who attempt to take their lives, but for those who are bereaved by suicide. The insensitive language, the silence or the denial that we perpetuate does not help those grieving. In fact, it increases stigma and hinders healing. Suicide will often leave friends and family with acute feelings of self-recrimination. ‘What could I have done to stop this death?’ The bereaved will also often feel unable to express themselves for fear of stigma, and will feel abandoned and ashamed, as well as not wanting to reveal how their loved one may have died. This silence and denial can be devastating and debilitating.

More than ever, we need a direct, respectful and open way to speak about suicide. And the media, together with educators, community leaders and medical providers must lead the way. They are the ones that we turn to for information, education and assistance at times like this.

Perhaps, if we are more open about talking about suicide, then those who have attempted it can find hope for the future through life-saving dialogue, those who have been bereaved by it can find some dignity and support in their loss. Having an open dialogue without using insensitive and offensive language will show people that it is ok to have suicidal ideation – but one should and can get help. Perhaps if we had had this conversation sooner, Alex would not have died by suicide.

Go well my friend. You will be missed – but your legacy as a DJ, producer and more importantly friend, colleague and family member will live on.

Shalini Bhalla-Lucas is an accredited mindfulness teacher, international mental health campaigner and award-winning author of three books. You can follow her on social media @justjhoom.