Last week, a young Nigerian man in Ibadan posted on Twitter that he was going to kill himself. He couldn’t see any other way out of the mess he felt his life was in. Thank God, he eventually didn’t go through with it! Mentally Aware Nigeria and other private citizens apparently reached out to him and their support proved helpful. It possibly contributed to him not being swallowed by the darkness that was dragging him towards suicide. Unfortunately, there were others who mocked him, who encouraged him to go and kill himself , who treated his call for help like a big joke. It is appalling that anyone would sit behind their computer and treat someone else’s crisis like a joke. A line from one of my favourite songs from secondary school is, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t talk at all is my advice.”
If your natural instinct is to mock someone else’s predicament, you should learn not to say anything at all. I get that many people don’t understand depression. They don’t understand the weight of an illness that shares a synonym with unhappiness; an illness that doesn’t manifest itself like any of the other illnesses they know. Most folks would say that that’s even a more compelling reason to keep quiet. You do not mock what you do not understand.
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Major (or clinical) depression is one of the most common mental health disorders in the world. Per the ADAA (Anxiety and Depression Association of America) , 264 million people worldwide suffer from depression. According to a 2017 report by Healththink.org, seven million Nigerians suffer from clinical depression. And these sufferers don’t often get the help they need because of the stigma attached to mental health illnesses and the lack of knowledge of what depression really is. Per the same report by Healththink.Org, 78 percent of health practitioners at a medical centre in Benin City had “difficulties working with depressed patients.”
One of the most persistent misconceptions among our people is that (clinical) depression is the same as the regular sadness everyone feels at some point or the other. And they think that if they can get over their sadness, why can’t other people? They see it as some sort of attention-seeking behaviour. What manner of attention-seeking that keeps you in a place so dark that you’re unable to see any light? So dark that you think the only way out is death? While not everyone with a mental illness has suicidal thoughts, we know that depression, when not managed, can be life-threatening and can lead to suicide. In 2020, Daily Trust released a report on world Suicide Prevention Day that showed that between January 2017 and August, 2020, 264 Nigerians died by suicide. Officially. Thanks to social media! Discussions about suicide are not as hidden as they might have once been.
And yet, certain fallacies about suicide and suicidal people endure. Some folks think that people who appear successful and happy cannot be suicidal. A friend killed himself despite being one of the happiest-looking people I’ve ever known. You could not be in his presence and not experience some level of joy. His laugh, as I remember it, was infectious. A 19-year-old I’d known since he was a baby hanged himself after a night out with friends. He was – as far as I know- a happy teenager. He was a talented musician who played in a band with his brother with whom he had a close relationship. Yet, these two suffered from a depression that eventually took their lives.
Another thing one hears is that people who are serious about killing themselves do not talk about it. One of the responses to the Ibadan man’s tweet was that he wouldn’t do it because he was talking about it. “People who talk about it won’t do it,” someone wrote. Anyone who has contemplated suicide will tell you that talking about it isn’t an empty threat. And there have been cases where people have talked about it and gone on, sadly, to successfully kill themselves before any help could be given to them. In fact, according to NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), an American organisation, it is a harmful myth that most suicides happen suddenly and without any warning. Most suicides are preceded by warning signs which are only recognised in retrospect.
When these signs are clear, like in last week’s case, it is imperative that whoever can, helps. That help shouldn’t include – as I saw last week- comparing your woes to theirs (it’s not a comparison contest and doesn’t help) or telling them gleefully that they would go to hell (what sort of Christian or Muslim are you to rejoice in someone’s eternity in hell?). It shouldn’t include telling them that it is un-African (which is ridiculous) or that they are selfish (they are often not even thinking of themselves). Do not call them cowards (anyone who’s attempted suicide or contemplated it would most likely tell you that it’s not “the easy way out”). And whatever you do, do not minimise the pain of someone who’s already suffering.
So what is helpful? I asked a friend who’s considered suicide in the past (and is, thankfully, in a much better place now) and I googled other survivors’ stories and the common denomination is this: compassion. When someone tells you they have suicidal thoughts, listen to them with compassion. That means without judgement. Listen in a way that shows that you do care for them. Acknowledge their struggle and encourage them to get professional help. You can’t fix their depression but you can make things worse by being an inconsiderate twat.