Suicide in Africa Not as Low as Previously Thought

by 02/11/2012 12:01:00 0 comments 880 Views
Suicide in Africa Not as Low as Previously Thought

Australian comedian Jim Jefferies made a striking remark on his show ‘Alcoholocaust’ recently about the high rate of suicide in western society. “We have a higher rate of suicide in the west than we do in Africa. One in four people are dying from AIDS...yet they’re happier than you,” he said, casting an accusatory glance at the audience. But is his statement true? What do we really know about suicide in Africa?

Earlier studies of suicide by the World Health Organization suggested that suicide was rare in Africa. More recent research by the WHO proves that there are also indeed cases of depression and suicide on the continent, though there are few African countries that have data about suicidal behaviour. This is because socio-political, religious and cultural factors in some countries mean that suicide is still seen as a crime and can have negative consequences for the families of the deceased.

“People do not talk about suicide,” says David Ndetei, psychiatrist in Nairobi and founder of the Africa Mental Health Foundation. Ndetei researched suicidal behaviour in Kenya. “For that matter suicide does not exist. In Africa it is completely stigmatised like many other issues.”

Rates and figures
WHO’s study is far from complete and appears to be based mostly on research carried out in South Africa. Data from five African countries has been incorporated into the study but each set of data relates to a different year. In Zimbabwe, only the suicide rate for the year 1990 is known: 7.9 suicides were recorded per 100,000 people. In the small country of Sao Tome and Principe the rate was 0.9 per 100,000, which included only women and therefore no men. In South Africa the last rate to be recorded was 0.9 (2007), 6.8 in Mauritius (2008) and 4.6 in Seychelles (2008). By comparison, in the Netherlands the suicide rate in 2010 was 9.6 per 100,000 inhabitants.

“I don’t think the rate of suicide in Africa is that low,” argues Ndetei. “I believe the suicide rate in Africa is more or less the same as it is in The Netherlands and the rest of the West. We may not have the actual numbers and facts on the number of deaths by suicide, since it is still a delicate issue. But we do know have data on the number of people who have suicidal thoughts or even attempt suicide. This rate is approximately equivalent to rates in the west, so it’s plausible that suicide rates are comparable.”

Suicide causes
WHO states that the majority of suicide deaths in Africa are among young and middle-aged people, mostly males. Also, the WHO lists a couple of different factors that lead to suicide: psychological disorders, substance abuse and living conditions. The latter can be divided into three categories: financial and work/school related problems; interpersonal problems such as loneliness, death of a loved one and abuse and illness factors like HIV/Aids. A psychology professor told the BBC that HIV/Aids patients are ‘36 times more likely to take their own lives’.

“Every country and culture has its own stress factors,” explains Ndetei. “If we compare Europe and Africa we see in both cases that suicidal behaviour can be caused by environmental, cultural or familial factors. African life is harder, but we have been born into it. We don’t know any better. That’s why we walk around with a smile, just like the rest of the world. And like everywhere else, there is a group that suffers and takes their own lives."

Africans abroad
Although Dutch developments are closely monitored, the suicide rate for ethnic minorities is unknown. However, targeted research has been carried out among certain populations in Dutch society where suicide rates are above average such as among Hindustani girls and Surinamese men.

Simone Goosen, epidemiologist, researched the suicide rate among asylum seekers in the Netherlands. "There is a relatively higher risk of suicide among asylum seekers than the Dutch population among males," says Goosen. “Male asylum seekers from Western, Central and Southern Africa and those from Eastern, Northern, and the Horn of Africa are amongst the groups with the highest risk. Why these figures are significantly higher than the Dutch average has not been studied. We have studied the number of cases and concluded that prevention is required. It is up to others to decide whether an investigation into the increased risk is required."

A study of suicide among the Ethiopian community in London, England, states that ‘forced migration and the resettlement experience combine to produce a set of social, cultural, economic and psychological challenges for forced migrants which may affect integration, mental and physical health, and access to health and social care.’ Also, Ethiopian interviewees said that mental illness ‘carries a stigma in Ethiopian culture, which is not recognised as a medical issue but as a moral or spiritual one.’