Suicide in Jamaica
The bare facts
I am writing this article after a three-month break from this column. I used the opportunity to refocus my energy on writing academic papers and research.
During this period, we have had a lot of discussion on personality disorders in Jamaica, suicide, the mental hospital and mental-health group homes. I deliberately stayed out of these discussions and took the opportunity to listen, think deeply and reflect on several of these issues.
There have been a lot of frenzy and sensationalism in regards to suicide recently. Let me share some simple facts.
Fact 1: Jamaica has a low suicide rate
On the matter of suicide, there has been no increase in suicide rates. A group of us at the University of the West Indies have been studying suicide in Jamaica and what our research indicates is that Jamaica has one of the lowest suicide rates in the world and that, over time, this rate has remained stable. The widely held belief among Jamaicans, that if one commits suicide, one will not make it to heaven, seems to be a major factor accounting for this low suicide rate here.
Fact 2: Suicide is higher in men
The suicide rate is higher in men as compared to women, as men tend to use more lethal means such as hanging and shooting. Women attempt suicide more often than men. The commonest means of suicide attempt among women is the taking of pills.
Fact 3: Suicide is low among adolescents and is not increasing
Unfortunately, adolescents do commit suicide. Fortunately, the suicide rate among adolescents in Jamaica is still low and it is not on the increase contrary to the widespread media report. There is an increase in awareness of mental-health issues and, certainly, the recently publicised cases have focused our attention on these issues, thus giving the impression that the problem is worse than it really is.
Fact 4: Not all suicide attempters intend to kill themselves
Many people who attempt suicide do not intend to kill themselves. In fact, many people do so to gain attention. We have a growing problem here in Jamaica among adolescents who cut themselves. Many children and adolescents who cut, do so to gain attention. They are crying out for help. We refer to this as deliberate self-harm. This occurs in adolescents who may be depressed, many of whom live in toxic family environments, unstable homes and in situations where they are being abused. These children often do not have sufficient outlet to express themselves and to be heard and they use cutting as a means to release and relieve their pain.
Fact 5: Media reports can be contagious
The overexposure of suicide has a contagious effect. Research has shown that media reports on suicide can influence subsequent suicide behaviour, especially among young people. Media must be responsible and restrained in the reporting of such a difficult and delicate issue as suicide.
Fact 6: More mental-health services needed
I note that hotlines are being opened. This is commendable. We should not be surprised that they are being swamped. Jamaica has failed to invest sufficiently in mental-health services, especially for young people. Counselling services for children and adolescents are limited. In many instances, children wait for up to three months to be seen in the public-health system. We need more resources to be allocated to mental-health services for children and adolescents.
Dr Wendel Abel is a consultant psychiatrist and head, Section of Psychiatry, Dept. Of Community Health and Psychiatry, University of the West Indies, 977-1108; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.