By Blessyn Kure

I have experienced the pain and grief that accompanies losing a loved one countless times and have watched people struggle through the same, but never have I had to watch a family bury their child. 17-year-old Da’a
died by suicide after consuming pesticide in Kaduna State, Nigeria. The excruciating pain her family felt continues to linger long after she has been laid to rest and the wailing has ended. Da’a and many others like her are the inspiration behind this article.

Suicide is a worldwide occurrence that affects people of all nationalities, cultures, religions, genders and societal status. Globally, one person commits suicide every 40 seconds, which translates to an estimated 800,000 suicides yearly with about 79% of these deaths occurring in low- and medium-income countries like Nigeria. In 2016, a WHO report showed that Nigeria had an age-standardised suicide rate of 17.3 per 100,000 people.

Male suicide rates tend to be significantly higher than female rates around the world, but in Nigeria the figures are very similar despite the poor documentation of suicide cases in Nigeria. The age-standardised male rate is 17.5 per 100,000 people, while the female rate is 17.1. Taken separately, Nigeria has the 56th highest suicide rate among men, but the 3rd highest among women.

A recent spike of suicide in Nigeria has been linked to a couple of factors like untreated mental illnesses (with an estimated 30% of the nation’s population suffering from at least one kind of mental illness according to the 2018 Federal Ministry of Health report) and increased economic hardship (a result of the dwindling state of the nation’s economy leading it to overtake India as the poverty capital of the world). The high rate of unemployment has also been named as one of the leading factors with over 20 million unemployed citizens according to the National Bureau of Statistics, with these numbers experiencing exponential growth over the years as thousands of graduates are produced from various tertiary institutions yearly. Others factors linked to the spike in rates include marital and family issues, abuse, substance abuse and addiction among other pressures.

Within a short period of time, “Sniper” a brand of insecticide produced in Nigeria has gained notoriety for being the weapon of choice for suicide among Nigerians due to its availability and affordability in the open market, which led to its ban by the Nigerian government in July 2019. This move was met with mixed reactions amidst the people calling on the government to work on nipping the menace from its bud by providing better mental health care and putting other appropriate measures in place to help improve and secure the lives of Nigeria’s citizens. The question that remains on the lips of many is if the ban is enough to keep these recurrent deaths at bay?

Anyone with a keen eye can notice the pattern at play in these suicide occurrences ranging from the dominant reason for suicide or suicidal attempts to the method of choice that cuts across all genders, ages and socio-economic backgrounds. There was once a time in Nigeria where suicide by hanging, jumping into bodies of water and stabbing were the predominant methods of choice, for a wide range of triggers such as mental health issues, abuse, unrequited love, heartbreak, failure, major disappointments, indebtedness and  unemployment amongst others. 

In 1974, the term "Werther effect”, was used to refer to the phenomenon of copycat suicides, coined by researcher David Phillips. Reports showed one of the earliest known associations between the media and suicide was in 1774 when Goethe's novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther) depicted the main character Werther, shooting himself with a pistol after being rejected by the woman he loved. Shortly after, young men began using the same method to kill themselves in acts of hopelessness and even replicated the tiniest details such as wearing the same outfit and sitting in the same position he was when he committed the act. The Werther effect not only predicts an increase in suicide, but it almost certainly guarantees that the majority of the suicides will take place in the same or a similar way as the one publicised, especially among people of that age group or demographic.

The National Institute of Mental Health defined “copycat suicide” as an emulation of another suicide that the person attempting suicide knows about either from local knowledge or due to accounts or depictions of the original suicide on television and in other media.

Upon learning of someone else's suicide, some people decide that action may be appropriate for them as well, especially if the publicised suicide was by someone in a situation similar to theirs. The publicised suicide serves as a trigger, in the absence of protective factors, for the next suicide by a susceptible or suggestible person. Social learning of suicide-related behaviors, or "copycat suicides" is what leads to suicide clusters.

The widespread of "copycat suicides" can be further curbed through the media by putting the “Papageno effect” which revealed an indirect association between media reporting of suicide cases and suicides to work. This can be done by applying particular caution when reporting suicides by not placing suicide stories prominently and unduly repeating them; avoidance of the use of language which sensationalises suicide or presents it as a constructive solution to problems; the omission of explicit descriptions of the method used and details about the location, with each suicide story publication mentioning professional help services or warning signals to look out for as listed as part of the WHO guidelines.

It is worth noting that attempting suicide is still a criminal offence in Nigeria, under Section 327 of the Criminal Code Act. Attempted suicide carries a penalty of up to one year in prison, with the implication being that you either succeed at committing suicide or face the wrath of the law.

Nigeria has been struggling to formulate a modern mental health law that replaces the old Lunacy Act of 1958 since 2003 to no avail, despite the WHO’s comprehensive mental health action plan 2013-2020, calling for a change in the attitudes that perpetuate stigma and discrimination of those battling mental health.

If passed into law, the modern mental health law would fill the present gaps with respect to treatment, patient protection, financing, human resources, and mental health services.