It is true that everyone must die one day. However, it is one thing to die and it is another thing to end one’s life.
For the past 4 years, Nigeria has seen a tremendous rise in the coverage of suicide cases across the country; from university undergraduates to working-class citizens, old, young, rich or poor, experts say these crimes of self-harm are bound to get worse.
In an exclusive interview with Esther Timothy, a psychologist and mental health expert with the Healthland Alliance in Akwa Ibom State, she said, “Suicide cases will continue to rise as long as Nigerians continue to believe there is no more hope for them. People opt to end their lives when they think there is no other way out of their predicament [social economic problems or otherwise] and that is a lie.”
When asked whether there is any circumstance at all where it is justified or understandable to kill one’s self, she responded, “There is no situation at all where ending your life is justifiable. As long as you still breathe air, there is always hope. I work with inmates and the majority of them are suicidal. I once met a man who had been jailed for three years before he was presented for trial. He had lost his wife, mother and only brother while in jail and when he was finally presented for trial, he was sentenced to life imprisonment.”
“He had nobody to visit him in prison and nothing to look forward to on the outside. I don’t know how he had access to an insecticide in prison, but he resolved to take his own life. Luckily he survived and that was how I met him. Nobody could have known what he was going through if he didn’t survive it. After providing mental help, this man now has hope.”
During the interview, Esther Timothy accounted that she has heard of many sad cases of suicide attempts over the years. From victims who were bullied for looking or thinking differently to neglected family members diagnosed with HIV positive and more, “suicidal thoughts can come to anybody. Irrespective of age, level of education or religious belief, once the psyche of a person is exposed to trauma such as loss, abuse, intense stigmatization or severe feelings of isolation, depression is not far away.”
It may come as a surprise to most people, especially in a highly religious ethnocentric society like Nigeria, that depression comes in many forms and is not solely spiritual. Anyone can get depressed irrespective of their beliefs.
They begin to experience deep feelings of sadness, worthlessness, appetite loss, lack of interest in the things they once enjoyed, withdrawal from friends and if they don’t seek help, it results in self-harm.
Dr. Chizoba Obikwelu, a Senior Lecturer of Psychology at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka said “most people are not aware that suicidal thoughts are symptoms of an unhealthy mind”. “Once the thoughts and ideas become consistent given the opportunity and environment, suicide can take place. But it can be nipped in the bud if noticed on time through the signs,” she added.
Many suicide cases which have occurred across Nigeria recently have surprised members of the victim’s family. Signs of mental depression were overlooked and people close to the victims simply assumed they were having a bad day.
For instance, on June 17, 2021, when Ayodeji Ajala, a 29-year-old PhD student at the Kebbi State University of Science and Technology was reported to have killed himself, his father said he was surprised.
Mr. Ajala recounted: “The claim or rumour that my son committed suicide by hanging himself in his room is a fallacy which doesn’t hold water. He lacked nothing and was full of life as at the time he left home for school.”
On July 2, 2022, when 55-year-old Danladi Anva was also reported to have killed himself by ingesting insecticide, his oldest son told reporters they were “still surprised”.
“Accepting the reality that he killed himself was not easy for me,” he added.
In this interview, Dr. Obikwelu says the signs are always there. “Suicide isn’t a mental illness but it can be caused by a mental illness called depression. Among people who are depressed and already having thoughts of suicide, we find withdrawal tendencies; that is [the] sudden shut off from the crowd, comments that suggest hopelessness, drug intake/abuse and sudden change in dressing; like dressing shabbily without care, are some of the numerous signs a person isn’t okay mentally. People should be encouraged to speak out.”
Joy Aiyepeku, another psychologist and former mental health counsellor at the Federal University of Technology Akuru, told this correspondent that “people have always been committing suicide, but we are more aware of it today because of enlightenment”.
“The awareness of suicide and the influencing factors are also on the rise,” she said.
“The pandemic was an eye opener in many ways. People couldn’t do the things that distracted them from what was going on in their minds before. Work, socializing and other things weren’t happening [in mid-2020] so Nigerians were forced to face their mental health head-on and deal with their anxieties.
“One way to prevent suicide is to deal with the root cause… While we cannot totally ignore the fact that spiritual beliefs can influence the way people behave, it is always better to treat issues of depression as psychological first before spiritual.”