‘Suicide is not an option.’ Reads a very colourful sign at the entrances of a Non-Governmental Organisation in Kaduna, whose purported aim is suicide prevention and mental health intervention.
The colours invite hope, the message incites confusion particularly for the survivor walking through that door hoping to find a reason to not choose again an option they already had which this sign is now saying is nonexistent. Yet it is the atmosphere in that room that most unsettles.
The first time I attempted suicide nobody in my family even knew about it. Not on the day I downed the two sachets of Tetracycline I thought will do the job, not the next day when after nothing appeared to have changed in my 12-year-old body I cried silently in the bathroom begging Allah (SWT) to take charge, for I had no doubt he could do a better job than I. They wouldn’t know until I tried again at 19.
The second time, perhaps like the first, was a cry for help, this time though it was preceded by a trail of clues I hoped someone, anyone will pick up on. Deep in my heart, it was my mother I wanted to read these signs, to know how I hurt because I was sickened that I was an enduring disappointment to her. With my taciturn nature and too bad CGPA that got me expelled in my first attempt at University education.
She picked up on the clues. And my plan was foiled before I could set it in motion. The means of suicide, a bottle of Sniper, was quickly repurposed for an impromptu full-house fleet. We travelled to Kaduna to let the house air out, and to seek help. Above all, however, I believe my mother wanted me to have a change of scenery, and hopefully open up to her about what was weighing me down so badly that I wanted to end my life. She didn’t tell me that suicide is not an option, but she did, I don’t doubt with a good intent tug that good old guilt string by reminding me how eternally devastated she would have been left had I killed myself.
I opened up to her. Mostly. Telling her about the first attempt and why it happened. My deep unhappiness at the humiliation I suffered in Islamic school at the hands of my teacher.
I told her about why the recent one happened. And she reassured me that she didn’t give birth to me so I would make her happy with a certificate, she did so I will LIVE.
She isn’t drawn to sentimentality, my mother. Yet years later I will tell her how I hoped she had added to that mood-lifting invitation to LIVE that she also wants me to be HAPPY. She just smiled.
The room in that NGO is similar to many rooms like it across the country. Worse than many more that claim to be doing the same thing this NGO claims to be doing – helping survivors and those working to avoid becoming the next victims – that end up being dungeons of torture. It is littered with New Age mantras whose hollowness is swallowed by the hollowness many a survivor carries in their chest.
Yet it is the excuse for a therapy session that followed after it came to our turn to see the ‘therapist,’ – a middle-aged woman fully decked in grey Abaya who breaks into a gold-decorated smile I suspect at the sight of every patient – that left me scarred for a while.
In a sermon-like monologue in the presence of my mother, she deployed all the weapons in her guilt-tripping arsenal, invoking the grief I could have caused my mother had I succeeded, citing the eternal punishment I would have met in the hereafter, and finally reminding me that what I did is illegal.
Unsurprisingly, she finished off with those words that greet you at the entrance, “Suicide is not an option, my child,” she said smiling. I was broken afresh.
Legally codified stigma
The seed from which that unhelpful statement sprouted is embedded in a culture that sees life not as an interconnected bit in a latticework of a community that can either nourish or choke it, but as something that is given by a divine being that can only be taken by said being.
My Islamic origins instilled in me the belief that life is given by Allah and can only be taken by Allah. Anything else – except in select few cases – is a transgression inviting Allah’s wrath.
The Christian faith affirms the same. Life is sacred.
From this seed also came the Federal Criminal Code Act, Section 327, which says attempting suicide is a criminal offense in Nigeria that carries a penalty of up to one year in prison.
It is not one of those laws either that you can say, “oh well, this is just on paper, no way anyone could be jailed for attempting suicide!”
This CNN piece documents the story of Ifeanyi Ugokwe, who spent weeks in jail after attempting suicide and being rescued by fishermen who then handed him over to the police.
In an ideal world, the police would have worked around the clock to find him comfort. But Nigeria is no such ideal world.
Decriminalisation must happen now
Lagos State Government made an exemplary leap in 2015 and amended its law to recommend hospital treatment for those who have attempted suicide. The same has yet to be done at the Federal level.
It is not uncommon to hear when issues like this are raised that, “There are more pressing issues, like kidnapping!”
Yet, with the data from WHO Suicide Ranking that says 17.1 suicides per 100,000 populations in a year happen in Nigeria, ranking the country 30th most suicide-prone out of 183 nations – an unenviable feat – we have a crisis in our hands.
Add to that the fact that with suicide stigma being not just socially entrenched but also legally codified, suicide remains under-reported all over the country.
A good first step towards managing this crisis, thus, is decriminalizing attempted suicide. Only then can any conversation about the sorry state of our mental health support structure will lead anywhere near the ideal we desire – a Nigeria where you not only get support when you cry for help but you get support that is humane.
Support that treats you with full human dignity.
That is the best hope we can give through action to survivors and potential victims, per the theme of this year’s World Suicide Prevention Day.