Ministry declares suicide major public health issue
Ramsammy to unveil programme

By Miranda La Rose
Stabroek News
May 24, 2001

The Ministry of Health has declared suicide a major public health issue and will be placing it on the front burner for priority attention, along with mental health.

Speaking at the launching of a study titled 'The Shadow of Death -a recent study of suicides in Guyana - Incidence, Causes and Solutions', commissioned by Clinical and Forensic Psychiatrist, Dr Frank Beckles at the Hotel Tower yesterday, Health Minister, Dr Leslie Ramsammy, said that the findings of the study were not new, but were needed a long time ago as no hard data was available to formulate policies. There is no government policy on the subject.

The study, conducted by the Centre for Economic and Social Research for Action (CESRA) headed by Professor Ken Danns and sociologist/associate researcher Reshma Rampersaud, has recommended that suicide, one of the leading causes of death particularly among young males in Guyana, should be declared a public health problem since it took as many lives as AIDS.

Prof Danns and Rampersaud presented a summary of the findings to the gathering.

The study has found that during the latter half of last year, suicide was one of the leading causes of death in Guyana particularly among young people, males, East Indians and Hindus.

The study said that because it was not treated as a public health problem there were no major plans in place to reduce the incidence in spite of the dramatic increase in recent years. The study also suggested that the Ministry of Health should devote adequate resources to deal with the problem. The lack of finance has in the past, deterred work being done on suicide.

According to the study the suicide rate for 1999 was 2.3 deaths for every 10,000 members of the Guyanese population. Between 1995 and 1999, it found that the suicide rate had increased by 128.3%. It found that eight out of every ten suicides were males; three out of every four suicides were East Indians; the suicide rates were higher in Region Two (Pomeroon/Supenaam) and Region Six (East Berbice Corentyne); 52.7% of all suicide cases occurred in Berbice; two of every three persons who committed suicide in Guyana were below the age of 35; and young adults 20 to 24 years were over represented among those who committed suicide.

Stating that even as a student he had been concerned about the issue of suicide and had done some advocacy on the issue, Dr Ramsammy noted that the study had come at the time when he had the stewardship for health in this country and now had "more than a voice. I now have some power to do something about it."

He recalled that in 1998 at the psychiatric institution in New Amsterdam he advocated that priority be given to suicide and mental health. He said that as minister he could now put in place, a programme which he had made some preliminary remarks about on Saturday in New Amsterdam and which he would be making public in the coming week.

He told Stabroek News that the programme, which would be coordinated by the Ministry of Health, would involve the Ministry of Labour, Human Services and Social Security, the Education Ministry and the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports.

He said that the study will complement the findings of other local psychiatrists, including Dr Bhairo Harry and advocacy done over the last few years by a number of persons including leader of ROAR, Ravi Dev and Dr Madan Rambarran.

He announced that November would be designated health promotion month and led the call for a month, probably July, August or October, in which the awareness of the problem would be promoted. Dev, who also spoke, said that since 1997 ROAR had been advocating locally for the problem to be declared a public health issue and he was somewhat relieved that it would be given more attention in Regions Two and Six, where the suicide rate in the country was highest. He said the rate of suicide among urban Indians was low compared to that of rural Indians and he gave the example of Black Bush Polder, considered one of the "suicide nests" in Guyana. "To enter Black Bush Polder" he said is to enter one of the more marginalised and depressed communities in the country.

He suggested that government set up a secretariat staffed with professionals to deal with the issue of suicide.

Also speaking on the occasion was Dr Beckles, who introduced the other speakers, among whom was Pan American Health Organisation/World Health Organisation Representative, Dr Bernadette Theodore-Gandi who looked at the problem regionally and globally. Economist, Professor Clive Thomas looked at the economic impact the problem would have on the family and ultimately the country. Head of the Sociology Department of the University of Guyana, Dr Iris Sukdeo, said that there was also need for the research to continue with more focus on the effects of suicide on society and profiles of communities with high suicide rates. Resident Tutor of the Institute of Distance and Continuing Education at New Amsterdam Paulette Henry, who is also a researcher and based in Berbice, said that the IDCE had found that in Regions Six and Five (Mahaica/West Berbice) some persons had actually accepted suicide as a way of life and expected some people to commit the act.

Noting that the media had in a way sensationalised the issue, she said that in problem solving the media itself could play a pivotal role in networking and in education awareness programmes.

She stated, too, that while the Indian males might take their own lives, African males succumbed to their problems by becoming "mad" or mentally disoriented and this was supported by the fact that more than half of the residents at the psychiatric institution in Berbice were African males.

Dr Beckles dedicated the study to the memory of his late son, a professor in psychology, who at 35 years committed suicide when it appeared "he had all going for him."

He said that the study had listed 23 recommendation made by senior government officials, medical personnel, police and prison officials, teachers, religious leaders, politicians, local government functionaries and other community leaders in focus interviews.

While suicide in Guyana was recognised as one of the leading causes of death, Dr Beckles said that the size of the problem worldwide was one in which every 40 seconds a person committed suicide somewhere; every three seconds a person attempted suicide and it was among the top three causes of death among young people aged 15 to 35 years.

He noted that each suicide has a serious impact on at least six other people and that the psychological, social and financial impact of suicide on the family and the community was immeasurable.

While the study noted a number of reasons for suicide in Guyana, Dr Beckles said that it was a complex problem for which "there is no single cause, no single reason" but resulted from a complex interaction of biological, genetic, psychological, social, cultural and environmental factors. It was difficult to explain why some people decided to commit suicide while others in a similar or even worse situations did not. However, he felt that most suicides could be prevented.