Economic misery fuels suicides
Personal pressures fuelled by the country's economic crisis, joblessness and the devastating drought have driven many to take their own lives.
06 December 2019 | Health
Statistics released by the Namibian police this week confirmed that 373 people killed themselves in the first nine months this year.
The majority, 318, were adult men. The others were 44 adult women, six boys and five girls aged 17 or younger.
Available data shows that between 2011 and September this year, at least 3 625 Namibians killed themselves - an average of 517 suicides per year.
A study released by the health ministry last year concluded that Namibia has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, ranked fourth in Africa and eleventh globally. Personal pressures because of the economic crisis, joblessness and the devastating drought could drive more people to the edge.
“There is a clear link between economic depression and an upswing in suicides, depression and mental health concerns in general,” says clinical psychologist Dr Shaun Whittaker.
“It is obvious that unemployment is the main cause of suicides, while issues such as job dissatisfaction are primary reasons for major depression,” Whittaker adds.
Another clinical psychologist, Charine Glen-Spyron, says while depression, anxiety and ideas of suicide can affect anyone at any time, the current economic slump poses an added threat.
“People are feeling stuck, useless, helpless and hopeless. They feel like they have failed themselves and those around them, and this can lead to suicidal ideation, where they believe the world and those around them would be better off without them,” she says.
Suicidal thoughts and behaviour are also “often linked to pride, and the providers feel that their families deserve better and they cannot live up to what is expected of them, which again leads to depression and then the possibility of suicidal behaviour,” Glen-Spyron adds.
Yet, although there is an increased need for mental health services, the available resources are dwindling instead.
“It does not make any sense. As usual, mental health services are not a priority in a profit-driven society,” Whittaker says.
“It is sad to say that we have not made any progress in countering the problem. If anything, with the economic crisis in the country, we should expect suicides to only increase. Unless we address structural issues such as unemployment, there will in any case be no significant improvement.”
Meanwhile, state health services are deteriorating, Whittaker adds.
He says Namibia's poorest people are most at risk because they struggle with high unemployment, more financial pressures and job dissatisfaction.
“They are also less likely to be members of a medical aid fund and therefore do not have access to private psychiatrists and psychologists.”
Many people simply have no place to go when they struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts, especially in areas outside of Windhoek.
The Omusati Region recorded the highest number of suicides between January and September: a total of 53, of whom 45 were adult men, five adult women, and three children.
The Oshana police recorded 43 suicides - 39 men and four women.
In Ohangwena, 35 men, seven women and one child died by suicide.
In the Khomas Region, 34 men, two women and one child killed themselves.
These figures are in line with global statistics which show that women are significantly more likely to attempt suicide, but more men die by suicide.
Whittaker says this is partly because men use more lethal methods such as guns, while women may take a drug overdose and can be saved if they are found in time.
Glen-Spyron says men are taught to suppress upsetting and suicidal feelings, which makes it harder for them to ask for help.
Refusing to deal with depression could lead to substance abuse, which is another suicide trigger.
Whittaker says worry about the future increases anxiety and depression, “while alcoholism arises from the general trauma of living in this kind of society.”
Access to healthcare services is important in curbing suicidal behaviour.
Better education in schools, communities and workplaces, which encourages boys and men to speak up when they feel overwhelmed, “instead of putting on a brave face and denying their true emotions”, could help prevent suicidal behaviour, Glen-Spyron says.
She says a society that stigmatises depression and anxiety prevents people from asking for help.
“When you feel stuck and hopeless, and judged at the same time, it increases the risk for suicidal ideation.”
Limited jobs for counsellors and psychologists means that many qualified people seek employment elsewhere despite the “exceptionally high need” for more mental health professionals, especially at state facilities, she adds.
Workplaces should ensure that relevant services are offered to workers, she advises.
In general, she urges Namibians to “be less judgmental, more supportive and more sympathetic.”
“Those who suffer from mental illness will be more likely to seek help without feeling stigmatised.”
The health ministry says the development of a national policy on suicide prevention is planned for the next financial year.