Suicide is defined as the act or an instance of taking one’s own life voluntarily and intentionally. It is without a doubt, a serious social problem in Guyana.
According to the World Health Organization report in 2014, the suicide rate in Guyana was five times higher than the world average. This put Guyana at the top of the list with 44.2 per 100,000 people, the highest suicide rate in the world. It was estimated that there were between 1,500 to 2,000 attempted suicide cases each year or approximately one attempt every 5 hours, in Guyana. However, according to statistics on the World Health Organization (WHO) website, Guyana no longer has the highest suicide rate in the world, but has fallen to fourth place, Although the latest tabulations indicate a steadily rising rate of suicide in Guyana from 2000 until 2012, there was a significant decrease between 2012 and 2015 .According to the data on the WHO’s website, Sri Lanka had the highest suicide rate in the world at an estimated 35.3 per every 100,000 inhabitants; Lithuania was in second place with 32.7 per 100,000; the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) third with 32.0; and Guyana in fourth place with 29.0.However, when consideration is given to the fact that Sri Lanka has a population of over 20 million; Lithuania, 2.9 million; the DPRK, over 50 million and Guyana only just over 700,000, it means that per capita, this country’s statistics remain as horrifying as they were when the WHO released its report in 2014.The global suicide rate in 2015 was 10.7 per 100,000 population, while for the Americas, the rate was given as 9.6.
Europe has the highest rate at 14.1 per 100,000 populations, according to WHO. According to the website, Guyana’s suicide figure has been climbing since 2000. At that time, the rate was 22.3 per 100,000 population, but by 2005 it was 24.0 and moved up to 25.8 in 2010. For 2012, according to the WHO, the rate was recorded at 34.8. Guyana was the site of the Jonestown Massacre of 1978, when 918 members of the People’s Temple religious organization died from self-inflicted cyanide poisoning. Jonestown, located in northwestern Guyana, was the site of a commune belonging to the group. Although the disastrous outcome of the Jonestown Massacre does not directly correlate with Guyana’s ongoing suicide epidemic, it certainly sheds insight into the country’s dark history with self-inflicted death. No single factor can truly explain the high suicide rate, but a panel organized by the University of Guyana found that relationship issues, political upheavals, high crime and poverty were main contributing factors. Health workers have pointed to the deep poverty in rural areas, the prevalence of alcohol abuse which is notorious for its contribution to successful suicides and the ease of access to deadly substances. Some scholars have theorized that exposure to certain herbicides and pesticides used in the country makes farmers more prone to suicidal behaviour. Guyana is also severely lacking when it comes to mental health awareness.
Current legislation outlaws attempted suicide and defines people who try to kill themselves as “idiots” suffering from “derangement’. It is extremely important to demote this rate in the country. While there has been significant progress in downgrading the rate, some argue that the matter is still not taken seriously and enough isn’t being done to exterminate suicide in Guyana. The decline in the suicide rate during the period of 2012 to 2015 was brought about as a result of an increase in awareness of the elevated suicide rate in Guyana. This awareness inspired Guyanese citizens and urged the Government to make an effort to thwart the suicide reputation in the country. One significant effort made by the Government was the placement of a two year custodial sentence on attempted suicide. This enforcement was made to highlight the strict intolerance for suicide in the country. Years prior to the WHO report, Guyana’s Ministry of Health developed strategies on its own to reduce the number of people who take their own lives.
In 2010, for instance, the government began to train priests, teachers, and police officers to help identify people at risk of killing themselves in Berbice, a farmland area along a river shared with Suriname designated as the “suicide belt. “Notable efforts were also made by Region 3 to dilute suicide in the area. Region Three was among two other regions with the largest prevalence of suicide with 113.6 per 100,000 population. As a result, plans to spread suicide prevention awareness by placing posters at strategic points within the region to promote awareness against committing suicide were made. Plans were also made to coordinate with the Department of Education and youth groups to hold a number of seminars and workshops and role plays to bring out how suicide can be prevented. The Region Three REO added that the Administration hoped to create a partnership with the parents via the Parent Teacher Conference (PTA) to assist in addressing their children’s behaviour, and how to address suicide.
The Guyana Defence Force and the Florida National Guard (FNG) also joined efforts to address the issue of suicide in Guyana. Various aspects of the phenomenon were highlighted and discussed during a conference, which was held from February 28 to March 3, at the St. Francis Community Developers Conference Room, at Rose Hall Town, Corentyne, Region 6. In the region overall, the issue is gaining attention. The Pan-American Health Organisation (PAHO) has recognised suicide as a major problem, and is focusing special effort on raising awareness and implementing changes in government policy and in public health services. Between 2010 and 2013, PAHO launched region-wide initiatives to address treatment gaps in mental health, and has integrated mental health in its strategic plan for 2014 to 2019. These efforts have seen some success. The Media has also been flooded with suicide awareness advertisements and messages to enforce the importance of suicide prevention into the minds of Guyanese. In 2015, a Police Commissioner Seelall Persaud launched a ‘Suicide Helpline’ as another initiative under the Force’s Social Crime Prevention programme. The centre was equipped with suitably qualified and trained persons to answer phones, receive text messages and emails and other forms of communication through social platforms operated and manned by the inter-agency centre.
The increase in workshops nationwide encouraged locals to look out for those in need of guidance and showed them how to do so. This knowledge has notably strengthened the nation as majority is now aware of the importance of suicide prevention. However, Guyana has a huge deficit to overcome when it comes to tackling the problem: mainly the lack of mainstream facilities and health experts. The country’s own public health minister claimed the existing national psychiatric hospital is less than adequate, calling the facility unfit “for human consumption”. Guyana retains less than five full-time psychiatrists, less than 300 beds in the National Psychiatric Hospital, and no day treatment or community residential facility. Guyana’s lack of psychologists and psychiatrists is not only inadequate but it also shows neglect to mental health in society. This neglect is as a result, mirrored by Guyanese. Mental illness is misunderstood in the country, with symptoms often mistakenly attributed to witchcraft which is known locally as ‘obeah’. Communities often ostracise sufferers, and on occasion have physically assaulted them, at times with the endorsement of religious leaders, who are highly respected figures.
Guyana is a place where most people live in villages and rural areas, so those who people tend to reach out to are religious leaders. religious leaders always become first responders. Taking into account Guyana’s specific culture with religion, we have to take into consideration the way mental health symptoms can be interpreted certain ways by religious leaders. This is extremely unhealthy because if the entire nation sees mental health as being inferior to physical health, the suicide rate would only accelerate. Guyana has a very small population, and just as a family history of suicide leads to more suicides, suicide in such a small community will likely lead to more suicides, especially where the circumstances that each person in the community faces is practically equal and uniform. That is, unless the news of each suicide is reported in a controlled and responsible manner. This, however is not happening in Guyana. In conclusion, the researcher initially saw the efforts being made to combat the high suicide rate in the country as inadequate. However, after detailed research, she was able to learn about both major and minor projects initiated to dilute the suicide rate in Guyana. However, most of these projects focus on combatting suicide instead of preventing it.
These mindsets will truly only fight suicide attempts of individuals who appear suicidal. What about those suicide victims with no obvious signs of suicide? Instead, major organisations should focus on the pillar of thought of individuals. Educating individuals about the wrongs of committing suicide will go a further way than educating them about ‘the subtle signs and signals that suicidal people give off in order to help them”. When individuals are aware of the wrong things about committing suicide including the hurt they put their families and friends through when they do so, they will more likely avoid suicide when faced with a problem and instead, seek for help. Individuals in Guyana who rely significantly on religious solutions to mental health problems should be educated on the biological and sociological contribution to these mental illnesses instead.
In this way, they will realize the importance of counselling, guidance and psychological/psychiatric facilities. Future research should be done to explore the effects of introducing guidance and counselling to Guyanese as this may be the road to demoting the suicide rate in Guyana.