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Even though I had watched the two minute Youtube clip, “Silent Battles” several times on WhatsApp, what the young man was saying offered a whole new meaning last Sunday afternoon. That was after someone reposted it on a platform, following the newsbreak that a medical doctor whose name was later revealed as Allwell Orji had just jumped headlong into the lagoon off Third Mainland Bridge in Lagos.
My thoughts and prayers go to Mrs Chinyere Orji who, like most mothers would, was hoping against hope for the miraculous return of her beloved son until his dead body was finally recovered yesterday. We may never know the reason why the young man did what he did, unless of course he left a note and the family is ready to divulge the contents. Even at that, the sad drama surrounding the last hour of the doctor is a clear indication that because not all wounds are visible, we do not always know what people around us are going through or what action they might take when pushed to the edge.
While suicide is not peculiar to Nigeria, the fact that we have not identified it as a problem has ensured that there are no concerted efforts to address what has become a global epidemic. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), more than 300 million people of all ages suffer from depression, which principally accounts for why people take their own lives. About a million die yearly due to suicide, the second leading cause of death in young men and women between age 15 and 29. It is also becoming a huge burden in our country.
From the young to the old, the rich and the poor, married and unmarried, far too many Nigerians are now taking their own lives. The fact that there is no credible data to work with compounds the problem. For instance, in 2013 alone, the United States recorded 41,149 suicides, equivalent to 113 suicides each day or one every 13 minutes. With 33.4 percent testing positive for alcohol, 20 percent for opiates, including heroin and only 23.8 percent testing positive for anti-depressants when disaggregated, it is unlikely that the majority of suicide cases in the United States would be traced to the kind of socio-economic deprivation that may explain many of the suicides in our country.
However, it is comforting that there is now a general awareness about the issue of mental health in Nigeria. In the past, any report of someone jumping into the lagoon would be attributed to the diabolical acts of some village witches and wizards. In the world in which I grew up, for instance, the instant conclusion for a case such as Orji’s would have been, “Won pee pa ni” (they used spiritual remote control to compel him to take the fatal jump). Many Nigerians now know that otherwise normal people, including successful professionals, could nurse a feeling of emptiness and despair that could ultimately trigger suicide.
Alex Lickerman, an internal medicine physician at the University of Chicago, argues that survivors of suicide attempts “have reported wanting not so much to die as to stop living, a strange dichotomy but a valid one nevertheless. If some in-between state existed, some other alternative to death, I suspect many suicidal people would take it.” Unfortunately, there is no such state between living and dying once the Rubicon is crossed.
While conceding that depression is a major cause of why people take their own lives, Lickerman distinguishes between several categories of suicides, including those who base their action on a reasoned decision. For such categories of people, it is usually difficult to know what they are planning or how to help them. “These people aren’t depressed, psychotic, maudlin, or crying out for help. They’re trying to take control of their destiny and alleviate their own suffering, which usually can only be done in death.”
Lickerman cited the example of a 1993 case in Florida, United States when a six-year old girl, Jacqueline Johnson, stepped in front of a moving train because she “wanted to be with her mother” who was dying of AIDS at the time. “This is the power of the human mind. A girl in kindergarten thinks of the past and imagines a future that is so bleak, so devoid of meaningful moments without her mom, that she takes her own life.”
In the instant case in Lagos, there are speculations about a medical condition that stood in the way of Orji’s professional career that could have led him into the action he took but in the absence of a suicide note, those are just mere speculations. Besides, in a statement titled, “And The Doctor Died”, posted on his Facebook Wall, Dr Essien Attah who claimed that Orji was his junior at the University of Lagos extrapolated on several factors that could make a doctor commit suicide. “Doctors see the poverty and the helplessness of the common man every day. And when you care for another human being, their problems become your problem as well hence you share in their laughter, sorrow or frustrations. This is the lot of a Nigerian doctor.”
This sounds rather simplistic. Rational people don’t just take their own lives because they witness the frustrations of others in the course of duty. Yet, Attah has a point. Dr Robert Brandt, in his piece “Silent Battles that cannot be Won Alone”, wrote that medical practitioners are themselves prone to depression, citing several examples. “Our careers demand near-perfection in high-stress situations. We consistently deal with people on the worst days of their lives. We must inform patients they have cancer, life-changing illnesses, or debilitating injuries. We are the harbingers of bad news. Often our hard work is rewarded with anger, disdain, or advice as to how we could have done it better. Medicine is a field with rare compliments and frequent criticism; it’s not for the faint of heart, and most physicians aren’t surprised by the high level of depression in the field.”
What the foregoing suggests is that some of the people we often look forward to for help may themselves need help without knowing where to turn and that makes them more susceptible to depression which has been described as being surrounded by the noise of a thousand people yet feeling completely alone. That also explains why there are no quick fixes or easy cures. “I know from multiple friends who have been in that dark place that healing often starts with finding a person who will listen to them. Spouting advice and saying ‘just get over it’ cures nothing. Be kind and listen, truly listen. It can be the start of the healing process” wrote Brandt.
While we can surmise from the background of Orji that the demon that pushed him into taking the fatal plunge on the Third Mainland Bridge was not likely to be that of economic deprivation, that is the major cause of the suicides that have become prevalent in our country today. Of course there are no statistics but from what can be glimpsed from those who left messages for their friends and relations, most of them took their action based on what an old East German filmmaker, George Drayman once described as “the death of all hope.” That is why we must begin to address the socio-economic challenges that are pushing some of our brothers and sisters into believing they are better off dead than alive.
All said, for the benefit of somebody out there reading this, yet may have at different points contemplated taking his/her own life, let me conclude with an old story of a “wayward” girl which teaches a profound lesson:
A father passing by his teenage daughter’s bedroom was astonished to see that the bed was nicely made and everything was neat and tidy. Then he saw an envelope propped up prominently on the centre of the pillow. It was addressed “Dad“. With the worst premonition, he opened the envelope and read the letter with trembling hands:-
It is with great regret and sorrow that I’m writing you, but I’m leaving home. I had to elope with my new boyfriend, Randy because I wanted to avoid a scene with you and mummy. I’ve been finding real passion with Randy and he is so nice to me. I know when you meet him you’ll like him too – even with all his piercing, tattoos, and motorcycle clothes. But it’s not only the passion Dad, I’m pregnant and Randy wants me to have the baby and that we can be very happy together. Even though Randy is much older than me (anyway, 42 isn’t so old these days is it?), and has no money, really these things shouldn’t stand in the way of our relationship, don’t you agree? It’s true he has other girlfriends as well but I know he’ll be faithful to me in his own way. He wants to have many more children with me and that’s now one of my dreams too. In the meantime, we’ll pray that science will find a cure for AIDS so that Randy can get better; he sure deserves it! Don’t worry Dad, I’m 15 years old now and I know how to take care of myself. Someday I’m sure we’ll be back to visit so you can get to know your grandchildren.
At the bottom of the page were the letters “PTO”. Hands still trembling, her father turned the sheet, and read: PS: Dad, none of what you just read is true. I’m over at the neighbour’s house. I just wanted to remind you that there are worse things in life than my school report card that’s in your desk centre drawer. Please call when it is safe for me to come home. I love you!
The message: No matter the challenges you are facing today, it is not the end of the world.
This article was first published on ThisDay