By Dennis Nichols
I wish I could write more positive and heart-warming stories about my country; I wish I could touch the hearts of all who hurt with words and actions that would heal the deep mental, emotional and physical wounds of those who consider, or consummate, the act of suicide. I wish I could show them how to unleash the power and the light within each of us, transforming pain and disillusionment into joy and optimism. But I am also the one to whom I speak, and at times I want to scream out the words of the tortured soul who admitted, “Sometimes when I say ‘I’m okay’ I just want someone to look me in the eye, hug me tight and say, ‘I know you’re not’ “
The world is made up of all kinds of people and Guyana is no exception. The savvy and successful entrepreneur, the tough and resilient public servant, the salt-of-the-earth home maker, the free-spirited creative artist and the one born seemingly to either ‘suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ or ‘to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them’. Many of us are composites of two or more of these, but in instances of acute distress we sometimes find ourselves in the last two boxes contemplating Hamlet’s dilemma to be or not to be.
Acts of self-destruction have once again captured our news headlines. In two weeks three were carried out, one attempted, and almost certainly several more contemplated. The merry-go-round of comments, campaigns and controversies seems to do little more than keep pace with these acts. Here’s what I think we need more of (stated and implied in other articles) Person-to-person openness, understanding, empathy, and compassionate intervention can, in my opinion, do more than all the public education, sensitization, and mind-numbing medications out there, or at the very least, complement them. But the human heart, collectively, seems to be progressively hardening, and the thought of baring one’s soul to another carries with it the risk of misunderstanding, condemnation and betrayal of trust that may actually push a ‘victim’ over the edge.
Jesus wept in empathy with Mary over the death of Lazarus. Macho, mystical, Bob Marley sang, “The biggest man you ever did see was just a baby.” A bully, an abuser or a domineering adult often feels as hurt as a lost and neglected child, as does the shy, lonely introvert teenager whose every step appears to lead to a dead end of futility. People hurt so easily, and while many overcome and triumph against formidable odds, we are all pretenders to some degree. We hide the very fears and weaknesses we need to expose and deal with before we are overwhelmed by the agony of living a lie.
Some years ago I caused my wife some consternation when I disclosed that I knew exactly what some people felt before they committed suicide. She thought maybe I was contemplating the act. I wasn’t. What I meant was that I had experienced a depth of frustration and futility in trying to explain how I felt to people (mostly ‘loved’ ones) that did not or could not begin to understand what I was going through. And it was at the point when the only thing I needed was for someone to do just that. Suddenly, frustration inexplicably leads to rejection, worthlessness and helplessness. Suicide beckons, and the call is irresistible. Well thankfully, not always.
This article isn’t as much about suicide as it is about the inner pain and alienation people experience, along with the stigmatizing shame of admitting to some taboo weakness. Many can live with it, and do, with varying levels of that’s-just-who-I-am acceptance. Depression, addiction, psychosis, rejection, trauma, and suicidal ideation don’t mean the same to some people as they do to others. Exactly what Zenita Nicholson, Kavita Ackloo, and Ramesh Beharry endured may never be known.
A girl is making a kite which her brother deliberately stomps on. A fight ensues and the aggrieved party goes to a neighbour’s house to repair the damaged toy or make a new one. In a second scenario however, the child locks herself in her room, sobs out the injustice, and then hangs herself from a ceiling rafter. This actually happened in Guyana several years ago. If I recall correctly, there was nothing which suggested some mental illness or predisposition to self-harm, adding to the bafflement of the case.
A once virile middle-aged man agonizes over growing impotence and the fear that his still desirable wife is looking elsewhere for sexual fulfillment. He finds the courage to go for counseling during which he discovers that his wife has adjusted to his ‘lack’ and loves him even more for the step he took to save their marriage. The same thing happens to a pesticide-damaged canecutter. However, tradition and pride prevent him from admitting his impotence. He blames his partner, increases his consumption of alcohol, and in a subsequent jealous rage, hacks his wife to death and consumes a fatal dose of the very thing that may have precipitated the dramatic downward spiral. These are not made-up stories.
For a relatively large percentage of those who follow through on the call to self-destruct, this is what I think many of them ‘see’ from eyes clouded in self-absorption. A man looks into the mirror and sees meaninglessness in eyes that reflect the futility of past efforts and the hopelessness of further struggle. He looks at others; loved ones – maybe a wife, parents, or siblings – and sees their own self-absorption. He ‘knows’ no one really understands or cares about his problems. He sits on his bed and feels every ounce of his body burdened with despair. Physical pain, if any, is transformed into mental anguish. But just beyond lies the darkness of oblivion. Finally – something worth reaching for. Family, friends, money and material trappings no longer matter. Leaving a note makes no sense; feelings of utter hopelessness cannot be explained in words.
Depression is cited by experts as the most common cause of suicide worldwide. Regardless of what I observed and opined in the preceding paragraphs, I think we in Guyana need to determine if that is indeed the case here. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is, or isn’t. One way or another there is little harm in operating from that premise. In attempting to do so it may well be worth taking a look at an article I came across recently in which journalist, Joanne Silberner, looks at an American institution called the ‘Henry Ford Health System’ in which she says ‘there is a relentless focus on finding and treating people with depression’ which has dramatically cut the suicide rate among people in its insurance plan.
Health-care providers in the institution’s Psychiatric Division devised a plan called ‘perfect depression care’ with a seemingly impractical goal of zero suicides. Silberner notes that the plan is intensive and thorough – ‘an almost cookbook approach.’ When a mental health problem is recognized, patients are treated and monitored with cognitive behavioral therapy, (CBT) drugs, group counseling, and hospitalization if necessary. Providers are trained to be comfortable asking patients about suicidal thoughts, thereby breaking the barrier of fear that says if you ask questions about suicide you are giving the patient the option of doing it.
Furthermore, patients’ families are involved and are asked, for example, to remove guns and other means of suicide from their homes. Patients themselves come up with safety plans which include lists of things they can do when depression threatens, and include therapists’ phone numbers and reminders that ‘the feeling will pass’. Prayer and spiritual sustenance were not mentioned, maybe because of political correctness, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they are a secret part of the regimen.
With CBT, group counseling and the exposing of suicidal thoughts, it is obvious that TALKING is a key factor in the institution’s reported success. Maybe our government can look at this approach. But we don’t have to wait on politicians and policy makers to do it. Each of us has the capability of communication and the gift of empathy that enables us to actually be our brother’s (and sister’s) keeper. The battle against the urge to self-destruct is not lost.
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