The rate of suicide among young Ghanaians is setting off alarm bells. Statistics recently compiled by the Network for Anti-Suicide and Crisis Prevention reveal that 531 youngsters aged between nine and 19 killed themselves over a year. The reasons cited vary, though social workers seem to agree on at least one finding. The silence surrounding suicide – and its prevention – is digging a grave for youth in Ghana.
By Francis Kokutse, Accra
This past May, a 14 year old in a village near Atebubu, in the Brong Ahafo region of Ghana’s western border, was rescued from hanging herself. She and her rope were found in the bush after the girl, whose name was withheld by officials, had fled from parents forcing her to marry an older man.
Atebubu district director Ephraim Kwaku De Souza confirmed the runaway’s plight. “The girl looked pale and desperate, wanting to hang herself,” he said. “She expressed displeasure [about] the marriage, but her parents ignored her pleas.”
While the story no doubt calls attention to problems that come with arranged unions, it also highlights the growing suicidal tendencies being observed among Ghanaian youth.
“No one talks”
According to Mavis Darko-Gyekye, a lecturer in social work at the University of Ghana: “Suicidal behaviour and threats of suicide have been ignored in the country even though they exist. These are issues that no one talks about because suicide is considered a taboo.”
Social workers note how some young people will utter things such as “I wish I was dead” or ask “What am I doing in this life?” Statements like these may signal the stresses they are going through, yet these early warning signs seem to go overlooked due to a lack of public education concerning emotional traumas and threats.
In fact, Ghanaians have long considered mental illness on the whole a taboo subject. This has affected the open discussion of related stress and depression. Accordingly, most of those who suffer from these conditions do not seek the necessary help.
Those in need could theoretically be receiving more help from a number of social workers that the University of Ghana has trained. Yet, as Darko-Gyekye explains: “Unfortunately, we are training the personnel that are not being utilized because the people do not want to be associated with anything that would lead to associating them with mental illness.”
She adds that “there are no centres for troubled teenagers to go to seek help even when they expressed such suicidal tendencies.”
Amina Sulley, a 17-year-old market porter in Accra, typifies a teenager who might not be in touch with her mental state. “Since coming to Accra to work in the market and not making much [money], there have been times that I have felt like just drinking some poison to die and end my suffering,” she tells RNW. “The feeling became high[tened] when some men tried to rape me one night whilst I was asleep in a market stall.”
Sulley did not, however, accept this as a sign of depression or, for that matter, that she needed help. “I felt that I was suffering because when I make some money, I do not think about those things,” she says.
Meanwhile, middle-class parents generally seem aware of these dangers, though do not take them seriously.
Jones Adjei had the misfortune of experiencing the loss of his 13-year-old daughter. “I did not know that it would lead to her death when she started complaining about her stepmother to me,” he admits. “At one point, she said to me ‘I hope she [will] be happy when I am dead and gone’, but I took it lightly. Two weeks later, we found her dead in her room after she had drunk some poison.”
“Many parents would not like to talk about the issue because of fears that the family would be tagged as ‘people who commit suicide’. What is worse is that most people become alarmed when they realize that suicide is associated with mental illness. It is this fear of stigmatization that is helping to compound the problem. In addition, some parents are also forcing their young children into marriages, which has come to traumatize some of them to take the path of suicide to end their lives.”
Educating parents would be challenging, though worthwhile. As Adjei says, “I have learned through the hard way that my child was not just complaining but asking for help, and I wished I had listened to her.” Unfortunately, it is too late, and his daughter has long been buried.