Much has been said about the recent spate of suicides in Guyana, with many commentators speculating about whether or not any one ethnic group or social class is predisposed to such a terrifying end. The much publicized incidents of two young women in the past months, and another a few years back, hurling themselves to their deaths off the Kaieteur Falls, have brought the issue of suicide back into the full glare of attention. All three victims were of Indian extraction, and at the time of their deaths were in the prime of their lives. Their deaths left many to wonder about what had driven them to such extreme action, when all seemed well on the outside.
The deaths of these three young women at the Kaieteur Falls represent just a minuscule fraction of the number of Indo-Guyanese who have committed suicide. These particular incidents garnered much more attention than the others, simply because of the location and the chilling manner in which they occurred. We tend to view with less sympathy, and quickly forget the deaths of the many who consume poison in some remote backdam setting, or who hang themselves while the rest of their families are sound asleep.
Just why is Guyana experiencing an upsurge in suicide? Why is there so much despair and hopelessness at the individual level? Could it be that our understanding of what constitutes the ‘good life’ is in some way warped? Why is it that when our personal aspirations become elusive, we cannot find further purpose in our lives? How fickle have our personalities become that a momentary setback, an insult or fall from grace can beckon our own end? Are we holding on to just too many unrealistic expectations of life?
Health officials have said that the situation in relation to suicide has reached crisis level, and therefore demands the most urgent of attention from the government. Earlier this year, a study conducted by the Mibicuri Community Developers organization in East Berbice concluded that as much as 80% of all suicide victims are Indo-Guyanese, with 69% being Hindus. These figures are disproportionately higher than the ethnic demographic distribution in Guyana.
This is not the only country with a significant Indian population, to experience such a disproportionate level of suicide among this particular ethnic group. Malaysia (Maniam, 2014), Fiji (Haynes, 1984), Mauritius (Goorah, et al, 2013) and Britain (Ineichen, 2008) all reveal the same trends. India itself has high rates of suicide when compared to other South Asian countries or Europe, for that matter. Studies in these countries indicate a link between suicide among Indians and persistent poverty, alcoholism and mental illness. Can it then be inferred that Indians, whether in the Indian sub-continent or elsewhere in the diaspora, are more predisposed to suicidal tendencies, in comparison with any other ethnic group in the respective countries?
To answer this, we need to examine how Indian culture moulds the ‘self’, what constitutes such things as ‘success’, ‘failure’, ‘acceptance’ and ‘rejection’, and how the passage of life is viewed in this group. We need to understand why when one stumbles, or even when there are feelings of guilt or rejection, it is internalised as a sign of personal failure. Indian and other Eastern cultures reinforce the belief that life is a ‘planned journey’ while Western culture encourages you to see life as an ‘unfolding adventure’, and that bad moments are just as important as good ones. The Indo-Guyanese often gets caught between these ideological pillars, being bold enough to experiment and test cultural norms and boundaries, and in so doing make and battle their own demons.
Suicide among Indians in Guyana may be the highest among any multi-ethnic /multi-cultural country, based on the fact that Guyana has the highest rates globally. Life in Guyana is becoming ever more fast-paced, putting more pressures on the ties we have to conservative Indian culture. The advent of social media now places the formerly timid person in the public glare, and bombards him/her with unwelcome opportunities for self-evaluation and comparison. People become increasingly aware of when they are falling behind the ‘natural expectations’ of peers, friends and family, and start to question their own abilities, motivations and actions. This was quite the case with some of the recent suicide victims: they took to social media to give hints that all was not well emotionally.
To counter these trends, psychoanalytic studies and education must be aimed at getting high-risk persons to see themselves as not existing only at extremes, but rather, that life is on a continuum, and that failures and rejections are not the end of their world, but instead provide opportunities for introspection and a chance to change life’s course for the better.
It will be a tough fight to deconstruct the mental model that says failure is final and to replace that with something that says it is only a bend or a rut in the road that we call ‘life’. Many persons, who chose suicide as a way out, were often not inclined to open up about their problems. How then can we get to the vulnerable to share a message of hope and to address this scourge? What exactly has worked in the many suicide-prevention programmes that were started? I may be wrong, but I want to believe that taking an institutional approach to the problem will not bear the kind of results we want.
We need to know what kinds of social channels the vulnerable are inclined to communicate through. Among Indo-Guyanese, organized religion and their social structures play an important role. They have an affinity for their mandirs, mosques and churches, and tend to trust their somewhat informal environment more than the environment of institutions. Therefore, it may be possible that our social programmes will fare better if we empower and resource these community-based religious organizations to work with the vulnerable, and to help us curb the scourge of suicide. Health and social protection officials may want to review their strategies and to give more thought to how religious and social organizations can join, even lead the fight.