Multi-sectoral approach to suicide urged

By Daniel DaCosta
Stabroek News
August 6, 2001

Panellists at a round table forum on 'Understanding and Preventing Suicide' were unanimous in their call for a multi-sectoral approach to redress the high incidence of suicide in Guyana.

The public forum held last Tuesday at the New Amsterdam Town Hall was organised by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Guyana in collaboration with the Fellowship Lutheran Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Minister of Health, Dr Leslie Ramsammy, delivering brief remarks at the forum said, "never before have we thought and talked about this problem as we are now doing and we must never stop talking about it."

In committing the government to play its role in reducing the high incidence, Dr Ramsammy posited that "the problem of suicide will not be solved by the government alone but by all of us working together - the answer lies in all us." He called on Guyanese to help their fellow countrymen and women to overcome their difficulties and for every community to erect signs saying 'No to Suicide' and 'Lean on Me.'

Facilitator and psychiatrist, Dr Erv Janssen of the United States described suicide as "a tragedy for the United States and a major public health concern worldwide. It is a leading cause of death among young men taking as many lives as AIDS and appears to be increasing." He referred to the critical role that non-governmental organisations could and must play.

Dr Julie Janssen, a psychiatrist, who focused on the neurobiology of suicide, described the problem in the US as "a national disaster."

"The brain," she explained, "is susceptible like any other part of the body to becoming ill. Illnesses of the brain can cause people to think differently than they would otherwise." According to her, "social circumstances, unemployment, poverty, depression and violence also affect the brain and cause it to feel unwell. When the brain becomes stressed the chemicals in the brain begin to change so that we cannot think as well and can only think of one or two options. Unfortunately one of those happens to be suicide for some people."

Research, she said, had found that people who committed suicide had their brains influenced by the chemicals and were unable to think well. "When people feel suicidal they may not be thinking clearly, but might not know that something is wrong with their brain. You have to ask, listen and look at their behaviour for clues. We have to reach out and talk to each other."

Guyanese psychiatrist, Dr Bhiro Harry, in his presentation noted that suicide was not a new problem and strategies had been developed worldwide to deal with the problem.

Psychology in schools

"What we have to do is to look at these and choose which is best suited to our situation and start implementing it. We, however, need to educate our population and we should start in our schools with students at a very early age by introducing a psychology component into the school's curriculum."

Dr Harry also called for the strengthening of values and for people to be taught about love. Noting that the government had begun to decentralize health care by taking it into the communities, he contended that the approach to the problem of suicide must be multi-sectoral.

"Everyone should be involved and children should not be allowed to purchase lethal chemicals over the counter. Over-the-counter drugs must be over-the- counter drugs and prescriptions should be given for medications," he stated.

Headmistress of Berbice High School, Marva Baird, said that they had noticed troubled children between the ages of ll and 17 years. "Some children come to school with sleeping tablets and insecticide while some tell their friends they will jump into the Berbice river on their way home from school."

Observing that one female student committed suicide last year, the headmistress said she was normally worried about those who do not talk about their problems. "Sometimes children feel that they do not have anyone to turn to since the bonds with their parents and siblings are not strong enough. We should seek to have parents involved in counselling sessions and how to deal with adolescents since children at this age are very rebellious [and] some children are abused sexually, verbally, physically and psychologically."

According to Rev Roy K Thakurdyal, president of the Lutheran Church in Guyana, the idea of the forum was first mooted last year with Dr Janssen. He expressed the hope that the outcome of the discussions would equip the participants to identify symptoms and prevent suicide.

"Maybe the high incidence of suicides," he remarked "is a symptom of deeper ills... a reflection of loss of hope in life. Too many social ills are afflicting our society."

Acting Mayor of New Amsterdam, Claude Henry, congratulated the Lutheran Church for "the bold step in organising the forum" and called on service organisations, civic groups and the churches to join hands in tackling the problem of suicides "head on." Some panellists also called for the appointment of more social and welfare officers in the various regions, more educational programmes in schools, workplaces and in the media, more in-depth research and surveys into the social and economic ills confronting rural communities and stricter controls over the sale of chemicals. The need for Guyanese to show more love, understanding and care for each other was also a common theme in most of the presentations.

Among the panellists were Emlyn Ott, an American Christian pastoral counsellor, Rev Wilfred Ledra, a New Amsterdam Christian priest, Imam Mohamed Haniff, head of the New Amsterdam Mosque and Pandit Kamal Dhanesar.