Government on Thursday used its parliamentary majority to vote down an opposition motion calling for greater measures to address suicide, including decriminalisation, with its speakers arguing that the manner in which it was framed both politicised and trivialised the problem.
The motion, which was tabled by PPP/C Member of Parliament Dr Vindhya Persaud, called for several interventions by government and, in particular, the Public Health Ministry, including the review and amending of legislation to decriminalise suicide; the implementation of the 2014 Mental Health Strategic Plan and the National Suicide Prevention Plan 2015 – 2020, which were crafted under the former PPP/C government; the allocation of funds to provide the infrastructure needed to treat mental health and suicide as a national priority; and the resuscitation of the National Suicide Prevention and Control Committee to update the National Strategy to Prevent and Control Suicide within three months of its appointment and lead a national education and awareness campaign to help individuals and their families and make recommendations to government.
However, the government’s speakers maintained that they could not support Persaud’s motion in its present form, with Minister of Social Protection Volda Lawrence challenging several assertions made in the introductory clauses.
She specifically highlighted the claim by Persaud that “the current economic situation in the agricultural communities due to falling rice prices, loss of income and consequential foreclosures on loans in the banking sector coupled with the state of the sugar industry where jobs are under threat, and, the unemployment of thousands of people in the last 9 months in the public service and general society, are leading to a state of despair and hopelessness which are factors contributing” to the rise in suicides.
Lawrence said the claims were being made without supporting evidence and suicide is far too serious an issue to be trivialised. She also stressed that measures and strategies have been ongoing to deal with the problem.
“Let me inform the House that the Men’s Affair Bureau (MAB), under Social Protection, has prioritised suicide in light of the revelation in the 2015 to 2020 National Suicide Prevention Plan that men are thrice as likely to commit suicide as women,” she said, while explaining that the MAB’s action plan on suicide focuses on awareness, prevention, and intervention to improve the wellbeing of individuals, families and communities.
She further detailed that her ministry has restructured the Board of Industrial Training’s programme to raise the entry age to 30 and provide training in areas for people to be readily employed.
These initiatives, Lawrence emphasised, would reduce stress on access to employment while the provision of probation officers in all administrative regions and the maintenance of the Night Shelter would provide vulnerable persons with a space. “The government is taking action. Much has been done on awareness, not only at ministerial level but at the level of schools, NGOs and religious organisations. This is to be an ongoing process, however, there has to be a collaboration from all across society… let us not put a political, religious or racial face to this issue,” she added.
Lawrence’s position was further supported by Minister within the Ministry of Education Nicolette Henry, who stressed that the motion was based on anecdotal information and not facts or empirical data.
The motion in its current form, Henry said, does not expand nor improve what is currently being expanded or implemented by the Public Health Ministry.
For the opposition side, MP Yvonne Pearson argued that many young people have become hopeless.
“Many young people feel hopeless. They feel there is no future for them and that causes them to want to take their own lives. The present situation would make one believe that the devil is loose right now in Guyana. It is responsibility of government to have a healthy population,” Pearson said.
Fellow PPP/C MP Dr. Vishwa Mahadeo stressed that suicide is the manifestation of the failures of the family, the school system, the religious system and society as a whole. “It is the failure of us all,” he declared, while bemoaning that his region has been identified as the “suicide capital of Guyana, which has in turn been deemed the suicide capital of the world.”
Despite the arguments of these members as well as Dr. Frank Anthony in favour of the motion, the government used its majority to defeat the motion, to which no amendments had been proposed.
Statistics released by the World Health Organisation (WHO) during the tenure of the former PPP/C administration had shown that in Guyana roughly one person dies every day and a half and that suicide is among the three leading causes of death among those aged 10 to 24 years.