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Christopher Harper | Face up to youth suicidality, mental health

Published:Tuesday | August 28, 2018 | 12:00 AMChristopher Harper/ Guest Columnist

In an article published by The Gleaner on Sunday, a learned professor made an egregious statement that "Jamaicans don't kill themselves, but they kill each other".

While I understand and appreciate that Jamaica does, in fact, have a low suicide mortality rate in comparison to other countries across the world, trivialising the issue is a serious regression and has no place in the mental health response.

Referencing data that were captured by a U-Report poll, approximately 53 per cent of more than 1,000 young people, ages 13-29, who participated in the poll admitted to suicide ideation - suicidal thinking or a desire to take your own life. A further 32 per cent of the young persons who responded to that poll also unreservedly expressed that they had, in fact, attempted suicide.

If we confine the conversation to suicide mortality, we would be doing a great disservice to our young people in an effort to address what is in fact a live issue. The U-Report data reinforce info captured by the 2014 Youth Suicidality study that was conducted by the Ministry of Health, in collaboration with UWI and with the support of UNICEF Jamaica. The report highlighted, in clear terms, the reality and experiences of students in relation to all stages of suicide and their experiences during each.

Data collected from approximately 3,400 students, ages 11-25, revealed that approximately one in five students was at risk of suicide, 36 per cent admitted to suicide ideation, and 61 per cent of those who attempted were under 25. Furthermore, the 2017 Global School-based Student Health survey also provides a more comprehensive depiction of the current reality of youth suicidality. It reported that 25 per cent of students, ages 13-17, seriously contemplated suicide during the 12 months before the survey was conducted, and 18 per cent attempted suicide one or two times during that same 12 months.




Contrary to the statistic advanced by the learned professor, there are a few things which we must acknowledge. First, the population of Jamaica is small - approximately 2.7 million people. Second, of this entire population, young people between the ages 10 and 24 account for 27 per cent. A 1.1 per cent suicide mortality rate among those 15-24, however small, is alarming and suggests that intervention is necessary.

Furthermore, critical to this conversation is the fact that the rates are higher when examining suicide ideation and suicide attempts - two aspects of youth suicidality which should not be downplayed. Both experiences are crucial to unpacking the issue of suicidality and it is time that we explore this with the aim of filling clear gaps and tackling the issues in a conscious, coherent and consistent manner.

At this time, we cannot remain complacent in our response to such a pressing issue. I am urging the government to invest more resources as a means of ensuring that interventions are tailored to address the diversity of the needs of young people and respects the importance of preserving their mental health. Trivialising the issue and advancing narratives that are detrimental to the response has no place in our modus operandi.

Instead, we should seek to acknowledge the pressing nature of what is at stake and collectively lobby for a state response that is solution oriented and effectively implemented. I am, therefore, urging those with responsibility to move towards a proactive response, explore prevention as a first line of defence, provide functional avenues for help, and ensure that young people, in all their ability, capacity and experiences, are at the centre of these conversations and given an avenue to channel their concerns.

I am truly grateful for channels like U-Report, which is a tool that aims to give young people a voice. U-Report, an initiative by UNICEF Jamaica, has facilitated a platform through which young people have expressed dissatisfaction at the current state approach to addressing mental health issues and has given them an outlet to demand more.

- Christopher Harper is the national U-Report coordinator and a child and youth development advocate. Email feedback to and