There are no identifiable ethno-cultural factors driving suicide

Dear Editor,

Reference is made to Mr Khemraj Tulsie’s missive on suicide (‘Our social programmes will fare better if…’ SN, Dec 5). Without providing comparative evidence and instead, cherry picking statistics, some of which are outdated and flawed, Mr Tulsie asks: “Can it then be inferred that Indians, whether in the Indian sub-continent or elsewhere in the diaspora, are more predisposed to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 their respective countries?” In the context of Mr Tulsie’s letter, this question seems almost rhetorical.

The fact is, that while Indians in Guyana do have the highest suicide rate, it has been decreasing from a high of about 8 in 10 a few decades ago to about 6 in 10 currently. On the other hand, evidence indicates that rates for other ethnic groups have been rising. And in many other nations, including the US, Canada, various Caribbean nations and various Far Eastern and Asian nations, where there are groups of Indians living, Indians do not exhibit higher suicide rates or any predisposition to suicidal tendencies. In North America, UK, and Singapore, for example, suicide rates among Indians are significantly lower than other groups. African-Americans, Hispanics, American Indians, and other minorities have higher suicide rates than Indian Americans.

India does have a high rate of suicide. But it is not much higher than several African and Asian countries and even some European countries.

In terms of the global suicide rate, India is ranked around 11th whereas South Africa is 8th. South Korea, Lithuania, Mozambique, Burundi, Tanzania, Sudan, all have higher suicide rates than India, or which are close to India’s. And the causes for suicide in India are different from other countries – financial losses, educational failures, farm failures, and family issues are the major causes of suicide in India. Even within India, there are variations in suicide rates by state. The southern and eastern states have higher rates than the central and northern states. Most Guyanese Indians are descended from indentured immigrants from UP and Bihar, two states where suicide rates are significantly lower than in other states. Tamil Nadu (Madrasis) leads India in suicide, but in Guyana, Madrasi suicide is seemingly lower than in the case of other sub-categories of Indians.

The causes of suicide are complex and include a range of factors, not all of which are always apparent: mental illness, home issues, domestic abuse, alcoholism, boyfriend-girlfriend problems, separation, divorce, intimate partner conflict, extra-marital affairs, impotency, diabetes, health-related issues, poverty, neglect, loneliness, unemployment, financial problems, education failure, prolonged illness, death of a loved one, property disputes, fall in reputation, shame, insults, drugs, hard life, racism, discrimination, etc. These conditions are often treatable, but the government must invest resources and so far its contribution to anti-suicide activities has been woefully inadequate.

Suicide needs to be studied and solutions proffered. And I applaud Mr Tulsie for writing on the subject. But simply writing about suicide and offering suggestions on its reduction, as he has done, will not lead to a reduction in the suicide rate. Active groundwork is needed for suicide prevention. On this front, I laud the work of social activist and educator Annan Boodram and The Caribbean Voice group (in Guyana and in New York) for their advocacy and activism on suicide prevention. Few organizations focus on problems facing young people, especially the high suicide rates as The Caribbean Voice does. They, Swami Aksharnanda, Ravi Dev, Ryhaan Shah, the Guyana Foundation and others must be commended for the strides made against suicide, but there is a tremendous amount of work still to be done. They walk the talk. And concerned individuals like myself help to fund the walk.

As I picked up from my limited studies on the subject, resources to combat suicide among Guyanese are in short supply. Suicide prevention work has been chronically underfunded. There is virtually no government funding for the great work of NGOs like The Caribbean Voice and to others working to reduce the high suicide rate. I agree with Mr Tulsie that the country needs better and more social programmes to curb the scourge of suicide. Youngsters are facing all kinds of life issues and need guidance to overcome them. There is a need to involve youngsters in various spheres of activity to keep their minds occupied with the positives, rather than on issues that could result in them taking their own lives. They have to be taught about their value to society and that the community needs them – taking their own lives will not solve any problems.

People who kill themselves or attempt suicide have to understand that their death results in permanent effects on their families and their communities, including pain and agony. Also, once one person commits suicide then the tendency for others in the same family or community to do so too is increased, because of copycatting or the Werther effect.

The fact is that in the context of Guyana, there are no identifiable ethno-cultural factors that drive suicide and thus no group, ethnic or otherwise, is predisposed to suicidal tendencies. The bottom line, therefore, is that instead of trying to pigeonhole suicide as an attribute of any group, focus should be on active prevention plans, policies and strategies, and the investment of resources, with everybody becoming involved in a nationwide effort. It should not be left just to Boodram, Caribbean Voice, Guyana Foundation, and a few of us. Everyone must work together to combat suicide.


Yours faithfully,

Vishnu Bisram

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