The Sunday Mail
Prince Mushawevato and Veronica Gwaze
The highly infectious Covid-19 has disrupted lives and livelihoods around the world and forced governments into extraordinary measures that include mass quarantine through national lockdowns.
Medical experts believe such disruptions naturally cause psychosocial disorders such as acute panic, anxiety, obsessive behaviours, hoarding, paranoia, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
A growing sense of siege, which is usually compounded by already existing mental health challenges, can be fatal.
Health and Child Care deputy director Dr Sacrifice Chirisa said the pandemic was increasingly driving many people to take their own lives.
“Psychosocial economic issues have in the past been the major reasons behind most suicide cases. However, the recent spike is attributed to fresh developments like Covid-19, which left most people’s income-generating activities in limbo,” explained Dr Chirisa.
“It adds more patients of undiagnosed or untreated mental problems or depression, which, if not properly handled, leads to one committing suicide. Most people do not even realise that they have depression, while others take to substance and alcohol abuse often thinking it is a solution to their problems when it in fact drives them to greater chances of committing suicide.”
Globally, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that close to 800 000 commit suicide each year. WHO reckons at least 79 percent of the cases occur in low- and middle-income countries.
It claims that for every single person that commits suicide, 20 others attempt to end their lives. While the link between suicide and mental disorders — depression and alcohol use disorders — is well established, many suicides happen impulsively in moments of crisis such as financial problems, relationship break-ups or chronic pain and illness.
Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare Minister Professor Paul Mavima told The Sunday Mail Society there was need for a systematic approach to tackle the growing and worrying trend.
“There is a decline of general death cases and a spike in suicides this year. Mental health issues are usually tackled with blinkered focus, yet they have severe effects like loss of life,” he said.
“Economic challenges are related to this fix. Most people, youths in particular, are feeling the effects of the economic squeeze and they resort to substance abuse, which triggers suicidal thoughts and actions. Some few anecdotes reveal relationship and marriage breakdowns as other factors leading people into committing suicide. There is need to systematically tackle this issue.”
In 2015, the country recorded 764 cases, but a year later more than 953 cases were reported.
The figure dipped to 485 in 2017 before rising the following year to 596. Last year, cases topped 656, according to statistics from the Zimbabwe Republic Police. Overall, about 3 000 people committed suicide in the last five years.
This loosely translates to an average 600 cases per year or at least two suicide deaths per day. Current figures, however, are being compiled.
Aruka Foundation director Mandy Manyeruke said there is ongoing research to come up with the actual statistics.
“Suicide cases have risen drastically in the country, especially during the ongoing lockdown,” she said.
The organisation works with various Government arms and private institutions to raise awareness on suicide.
Part of the prescribed health protocols to contain the coronavirus, which is spread through social intercourse, has been encouraging people to socially distance.
Unnecessary family visits have been discouraged, thus breaking social bonds.
And because of the breakdown in traditional family support structures, many people often find themselves without a shoulder to lean on during times and moments of crisis.
“So many factors are contributing to this crisis. Human beings have a sense of belonging somewhere, be it a group, family or friends. When they feel isolated or face economic challenges, they develop mental problems and feel cornered, which then creates problems.
“One needs positive coping skills to escape terrible situations. People that lack these commit suicide . . .There is a serious stigma. Because of our culture, some families do not tell the truth when family members commit suicide,” added Mrs Manyeruke.
It is believed that most people fail to get the much-needed support at critical times before they end their own lives because remedies such as psychological counselling are considered to be alien to traditional and cultural practices.
Laws of Attraction psychologist Blessed Chinyangare says most people in Africa have not embraced seeking help for mental health issues.
“Historically, people would seek guidance from relatives, but in the modern world, ties have been broken. Society has somehow distorted the trust that used to be there, while in most cases inhumane and sensitive things, which act as a catalyst to committing suicide, are being posted on social media,” he said.
Statistics reveal that there is a disproportionately higher rate of males that commit suicide than females. For example, of the 3 000 cases reported between 2015 and 2019, only 505 were females. Men seem to suffer in silence.
In time of crisis, they bottle up emotions as venting out is traditionally considered “unmanly” and a sign of weakness.
Dr Molly Manyonganise, a psychologist and lecturer at Zimbabwe Open University (ZOU), said men are often a victim of their masculinity.
“African men are generally socially constructed as breadwinners in families.
“The high unemployment rate in the country has challenged these constructions and has led to men feeling useless, especially when they fail to feed their families,” she said.
Dr Manyonganise opines youths who grow up in families where making a mistake becomes a moral issue or have abusive parents consider suicide as a way out.“Because of immaturity, they think that by dying they are punishing their parents. In most cases, these have been unexplained suicides where there are no written notes or messages left behind,” she said.
Experts contend that effective and evidence-based interventions can be implemented at population, sub-population and individual levels to prevent suicide and suicide attempts.
It is believed that not every person has the strength and perseverance to overcome suicidal thoughts.
In 2015, Tafadzwa, who was 18-years-old at the time, impregnated his girlfriend. He was, however, unemployed and still living with his parents.
They did not take this new development kindly and lightly, and forced him out of the family home, claiming that since he felt he was old enough to start a family, he could as well look after himself. The desperate teenager then turned to his friends and relatives, but it didn’t work out. Everyone agreed that he had made his bed so he had to lie in it.
“My world was crumbling. I was in debt, had a pregnant wife and my biological parents were chasing me away from home . . . I tried reaching out to my other relatives and friends but no one was keen to help. In fact, they laughed at me for impregnating a girl when I neither had a home nor a job,” recounts Tafadzwa.
“I was eventually chased from home. I secured a single-room lodging in one of the high-density areas in Harare, but I was always in trouble with my landlord. However, the straw that broke the camel’s back was when my wife turned against me. I could no longer control her and she always reminded me that I was useless.”
Under tremendous siege, Tafadzwa tried to end his life by his own hand.
He downed a bottle of pesticide, but he survived after he was quickly rushed to the hospital. A private organisation later intervened by assisting him through counselling and involving his family.
He is now a new man.
“I suffered from depression and used to think about suicide most of the time. Things changed when my brother noticed and frankly told me about it. He sought help for me. I reluctantly agreed to go for counselling sessions conducted by a Harare-based organisation specialising in suicide cases. But in the end, it worked! I am now even scared to think about death,” a suicide survivor, who requested anonymity, told The Sunday Mail Society.
Medical experts say drugs like anti-depressants that remove anxiety and insomnia, which normally pushes one to commit suicide, are prescribed for some cases.
Counselling is usually considered for mild conditions. For substance disorders, patients are sometimes admitted in a secure unit until the intoxication has been resolved.
Zimbabwe is presently relaxing lockdown measures and resuming various economic activities as it has been highly successful in curbing Covid-19 cases to manageable levels.