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Doc Ayomide: Dangerous Assumptions About Suicide

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Mr Paul Olafare, an award-winning pharmacist and respected leader in his church passed away on 12th April 2015. The circumstances surrounding his death, and whether it was by suicide (as alleged by his wife) or by foul means (as alleged by his relatives) is a subject still under investigation by the police.

It is not my place to offer commentary on that, as I am not privy to the details of his death. Other than the conflicting reports from the news, I know no more than you do about what may or may not have happened. It is most definitely not my place to offer mere conjecture on something so tragic, and personally hurtful to all concerned.

But it is my place to address the mental health issues that his demise has brought to the fore: and that’s the issue of our understanding of suicide in Nigeria.

I can’t speak for the late pharmacist, and what may or may not have been on his mind in those last few days and hours of his life. But some of the responses I’ve seen and heard, online and off, leave me worried for those who may really be experiencing depression and hopelessness and thoughts of taking their lives — people not too different from you and me.

Here is one of the more common responses:

I don’t believe he could have taken his life. He wasn’t the kind of person who would have taken his life.

This response contains a huge — and possibly dangerous — twofold assumption. One, it assumes that there’s a “look” or appearance someone will have if they’re thinking of suicide. Two, it assumes this “look” would be easily recognisable.

Both are wrong. To start with the second: there’s no way to easily tell who is going to take their lives. It’s one of the thorniest issues in mental health. On one hand, many people with thoughts of suicide don’t actually make attempts. But on the other hand, you don’t know for sure who will actually make an attempt. There are ways to assess the likelihood of a person taking their lives, but none that’s very reliable at predicting who or won’t.

Long story short: we have to take everyone seriously. That’s people who actually say it; because (and this speaks to the first assumption), it’s very hard to tell who is thinking of suicide except they actually tell you. What of those who don’t? It doesn’t “show on the face.” A person thinking of suicide may still smile, or laugh, or play.

The reality is, suicide is often unexpected and sudden. Many times, no one is as surprised as the family and close friends themselves. Even when the person has previously been diagnosed with depressive disorder, or has talked about it, or even attempted it, the reality still always comes as a surprise. (Robin Williams’ death is a case in point here.)

This is not so surprising, actually; because death, in a sense, is really always a surprise, no matter how the death comes. Even for those who have been ill a long time, and whose death was almost accepted as inevitable, there is often still a kind of surprise when the moment actually comes. It’s ironic, maybe, that the one thing that happens to exactly everyone is the thing that is one of the hardest things for us all to come to terms with.

But among all forms of death, suicide may well be the hardest to cope with for the survivors. When someone dies, one of the first questions we ask is, “Why?” We want to know what happened. And with suicide, the person takes that knowledge with them: both the knowledge of whether it was actually death by suicide and why suicide.

Another response: “He was doing so well.”

This too contains another dangerous assumption: the assumption that certain people don’t think of suicide. The statement, “the kind of person to take his life” often includes the idea that it is people who are in obviously hopeless situations who think of suicide. We often imagine that people who are doing “well,” whether financially or professionally or in other ways, can’t be likely to think of suicide.

Except that often, people who think of suicide, or actually try to take their lives, include “success stories” as much as seemingly hopeless ones. Yes, there are challenges a person might face in which death seem appear more appealing than life, but they are different from person to person. We can’t use what we find demanding to predict for another person.

And yet another response: “That was selfish and wicked of him.”

Yes, people actually say this. And this assumes that suicide is something people do did with a clear head, and with no concern for those who care about them. But if you have ever been depressed, then you will know that depression at its most severe can make it very difficult to see anything that looks like a future.

Also, many times, suicide is impulsive. The person may have been thinking about it for awhile, and then suddenly just do something. So maybe it’s not so much about selfishness or wickedness. Maybe it’s more about people who can’t open up about what they are going through until it’s too late.

So don’t make assumptions about what is or isn’t the case with the ones we care about. Maybe then we’ll be better able to know when they need us, and offer help before it’s too late. And don’t hesitate to see a mental health professional if the idea of suicide is really strong. Downplaying it won’t make it go away.

And if we know someone who’s lost a loved one by suicide, be compassionate. Don’t assume they didn’t care, or should have noticed. Don’t rub in the questions they’re already struggling with themselves.

Let’s be gentle with one another. Let’s be kind.

Photo Credit: Dreamstime | Csaba Fikker

Dr Ayomide Adebayo is a medical doctor, mind health consultant and founder of Maximise Your LIFE, a community for people who want to live to the full. Grab your copy of his FREE resources here — plus instant access to his potentially life-changing email course! He writes at DocAyomide.com and tweets @DocAyomide. To ask a question, book a session — or just say hello — simply e-mail him ([email protected]).

13 Comments

  1. chu

    April 24, 2015 at 12:01 pm

    Lovely write up on a topic that is so seldom spoken about.
    However I feel no one should allow themselves get to the point of taking their own life, they should fight for their life and find alternative like counselling, prayers etc. When we see the way people hustle in Nigeria you know that they still value their lives, even the beggars that crawl on the floor with no hands and legs.
    We should also think about those we would leave behind, its devastating for them.
    To me people who take their lives are just looking for an easy way out, but its never the solution.

    • aleesha

      April 24, 2015 at 12:22 pm

      As the article pointed out, mental illness is just that: an illness. No one would take their own life under normal circumstances. It is not something you ‘get a grip on’, or snap out of. To say that people who take their own lives are just looking for an easy way out, is rather unfair.

    • Toyin

      April 24, 2015 at 1:04 pm

      It is your opinion and I respect it but this sort of response is why this article was written. Suicide is not something a person “allows”. It’s easy to say don’t allow it or fight for your life but that is not the reality of what depressed and mentally ill people face. When a person is down and out there’s no will to fight or hope or dream! Rational thoughts are gone of praying and fasting(that’s if they believe in such) or counselling. I ask that you be careful with your words that seem to describe suicidal people as weak consequently blaming them if they die. A little more compassion and understanding(which is clearly lacking) will do.

    • chu

      April 24, 2015 at 4:44 pm

      Maybe I can dare to say this cos Iv’e been to the bottom of the pit, where it seemed I could not not go lower. In ,my case it was God who helped me overcome and rise again. If I preach God some people will saying I’m being religious and not realistic but it worked for me. There is always a way out, that I believe and know. Thanks for your perspective though.

    • Opinion

      April 25, 2015 at 1:47 am

      @ Chu Not everyone has the same emotional standards just as not everyone can be an all A student. You don’t ask an asthmatic why don’t u try not to wheeze do u? One of the worst societal habits is victim blaming. When someone suffers you should offer empathy not judgement ( note that I didn’t say sympathy). Nobody willingly wants to suffer. It doesn’t even make sense to begin with. The best way to help in the smallest way is to be kind to people because everyone is carrying a cross.

  2. chy

    April 24, 2015 at 12:53 pm

    there’s this notion most of us share including me that depression is a white man disease or is it sickness so we tend to sweep it under the rug telling the depressed to either “man up, or get over it” believing that will make it go away.
    It’s equally obvious to me that the white people tend to thrown in the towel at the slightest sight of helplessness and hopelessness than us, as our situations over here is harder than theirs. be that as it may, clinical depression is real and should not be shied away from as it does not help the depressed get better. We are in a society where these issues have little or no organised form of system that help the sufferers.
    Brings me to the question of if i find any sufferer of one what do i do to the person and who do i refer him/her to. Shrinks are not as popular right here as they are over there.
    So bros a help line will be appropriate. And besides what signs do people exhibit or people should look out for.
    Too much talk for one day (life of an introvert).

  3. Ibukun

    April 24, 2015 at 2:11 pm

    Really nice article. Very informative.

  4. usdollar

    April 24, 2015 at 3:44 pm

    Nice piece…

  5. jojo

    April 24, 2015 at 7:40 pm

    Thanks for this write up. You learn everyday

  6. Toluse Francis

    April 24, 2015 at 9:57 pm

    This is a great write up doc. It’s high time we all realize that intention to commit suicide doesn’t show on the face. Depression is real and can result to anything. Like the writer states, let us love one another and care for each other.

  7. Tosin

    April 25, 2015 at 6:55 pm

    Thank you for writing this.

  8. gabbie

    April 29, 2015 at 9:03 am

    Understanding and empathy is all we ever need not judgement.I think that some of us have not yet gotten to that stage of learning how to empathize with people and accepting them. Truth is most times its not our fault because the human nature is very judgmental…. still we should try, to learn how to accept people and love them regardless of our opinions and beliefs. #just saying#

  9. Annoynmous

    April 29, 2015 at 4:49 pm

    Nice and informative article Doc. The person who commits suicide wouldn’t have know the repercussion and after effect of their actions. For instance, Paul Olafare’s wife has actually been in detention for the last 17 days at CID Panti, Yaba. She has no access to her children which I learnt were 3 and 1 year old. The woman would be going through through a lot of trauma by now. Another effect of that action of people taking their life is the question of ‘who takes care of the children and living the wife as a widow?’ Lastly, people through the social media should be careful on taking side when this type of incident happens.

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