Mrs Evelyn Oluyemisi Onibi is the Head Of Department, Clinical Psychology, University of Medical Sciences Teaching Hospital, Ondo State. In this exclusive interview, she talked about factors leading to high rate of suicide recently and how the society can help people with such thoughts. She advocated for the training of basic life skills in students’ curriculum at every stage! “Development of basic life skills should be both at homes and schools where children learn and practice what they learn,” she said. Excerpts:
The level of suicide in the country is on the increase particularly with youths, what do you think is responsible?
The level of suicide in Nigeria is worrisome. My heart bleeds as I read through the dailies that Nigeria has lost not less than 42 citizens to suicide in the last six months. Among these people are about 11 undergraduate students. It is also possible that not all the cases of suicide in the last six months were reported. Amazingly, some of the reasons given by these people, through their close friends or relatives and reading through their suicide notes are academic failure, disappointments, frustrations, broken hearts and Failed Relationships, infidelity by spouse, shame, disgrace and embarrassments etc. which we all know are part of life itself.
You will agree with me that ‘Life is not a bed of roses’. Selye, 1974 stated that we cannot be completely free from stress i.e. complete freedom from stress is death. No one is exempted young and old, poor or rich, educated or illiterate, villagers or urban residents.
Coping with Hardships, Frustration and disappointments, both big and small is part of growing up. Some youths cope with stressful or difficult situations better than others. Some seem to naturally get by while some need help to cope with seemingly minor situations.
It’s useful to reflect on how you cope when life throws you curve balls. Healthy adults develop a series of coping mechanisms to draw on, when they experience stress or some difficulty so that they don’t become overwhelmed.
The need for us to identify or figure out what and what could be responsible at this point in time cannot be over emphasized. In an attempt to find out the reasons behind this act, called suicide, many people believe that they are being pushed into it by the Lecturers that failed them, the boyfriend or the girlfriend that jilted them, the social media that is mounting pressure on them, friends that are oppressing them with flamboyant life, unfaithful pastors, economic state of the country among others.
In the olden days, people face their own stress in their own way such as we are facing ours today. They experience academic failure, disappointments, frustrations, relationship break ups, infidelity by spouse, shame, disgrace, embarrassments and oppression. In fact, their educational system was worse as my father, with blessed memory told me, the system then was ‘failed in one subject, failed in all. They spent years in school repeating after starting late sometimes as a result of their small stature. The children will go to the farm and work from morning till night, carrying loads from farm grinding pepper on stones on getting home in the evening and cooking before they could eat.
You can imagine how a grown up lady betroth to an elderly man against her wish will feel because her father has been offered a keg of palm wine. Is this not in form of rape? I could also remember in the early 80s how parents will come and beat their ward on the assembly ground, in secondary school, a lady of about 16 years. I remembered a particular parent that scraped his daughter’s hair as a form of punishment in front of everybody on the assembly, so that she will be more focused on her academics.
The lack of freedom and not having a say in issues pertaining to one’s life then could be frustrating. No access to information at all and when elderly people are talking, you are asked to leave.
Equally, many youths suffered as undergraduates and some of them will have to farm before they could pay their school fees or feed. My father in the Lord narrated how he was stung by bees when he went to fetch firewood that he will have to sell, to cater for his needs while schooling.
Nowadays, a lot of things have changed. Youths now have more freedom in terms of choosing their life partners and entering into relationships at will, without intermediaries like in the olden days. Some will even go to where they referred to as miracle center with the support of their parents and pay heavily in order to pass with ease.
The fact remains that people also commits suicide in the olden days based on the peculiarity of their own stress and likewise in these modern days. My interest lies in what will make someone to commit suicide and another will not commit suicide even when both of them experienced the same thing, in the same situation.
Looking at it from the psychological perspective, I believe there are fundamental issues that we have failed to addressed. For example, we are in an era where youth can learn, discover anything of interest on the internet and make an informed decision. The question is, are they really making the right decisions?
Firstly, the vulnerability and the lack of resilience to face life challenges should be our focus!
Life is full of ups and downs, bad people will always exist, traumatic events will be experienced even when we did not pray or plan for it! But we are vulnerable because we lack the resilience to face these challenges! I discovered that over 90% of people with history of depression or suicidal ideation/attempts that I have come across in the last 17 years of practice in psychiatric hospital lack one basic life skill or the other (the resilience) such as good decision making skills, coping and stress management skills, high self-efficacy, high self-esteem, help-seeking and problem solving skills, assertiveness etc.
These are the skills that every child should have acquired as they grow through their interaction with their parents, provided the parent has good parenting skill. Unfortunately, what the parents do not have, they cannot give, we have left our roles as parents and we are busy chasing shadows. We pay their school fees, we even pay for lesson teachers but we are not there to teach them what it takes to be a ‘man’. It is disheartening to see a physically matured man or woman with low or immature mental/psychological capability.
Secondly, our best friend and our worst enemies are the thoughts we have about ourselves!! Mind your mind!!!! ‘Our world is ruled by our imagination and it is the mind that is the man’ there some cognitive errors or illogical thought patterns that are self-defeating and can cause great anxiety or depression for an individual. Most of us especially youths are battling with these thoughts. Examples are:
Over-generalization– “This relationship ended, so I won’t ever meet anybody.”
Catastrophizing – “Nothing is ever going to work for me.”
Jumping in to conclusions– judging a situation based on assumptions as opposed to definitive facts
Mental filtering– paying attention to the negative details in a situation while ignoring the positive
Magnifying/ Minimizing– magnifying negative aspects in a situation minimizing positive aspects in a situation
Personalizing– assuming the blame for problems even when you are not primarily responsible
Dichotomous/Black and white thinking, with no grey areas: “I’ve completely failed.”
With the moon light stories that our elderly parents tell us in those days, most of these thoughts could be changed. Also, when parents spent quality time with their ward, they will discover some of these thoughts and they will be corrected.
Thirdly, the personality type of the individual makes them vulnerable. Personality traits, such as low self-esteem or being overly dependent, self-critical or pessimistic, impulsivity etc
Example is a Border line personality. People with this type of personality are impulsive. They find themselves doing things or taking actions that they regret later after giving it a second thought. Unfortunately someone that takes sniper impulsively out of frustration has no chance of re-thinking. Who knows if there are regrets through the dying process? I once heard of someone who took rat poising because of misunderstanding between her and the husband. By the time she knew that things were out of hands she told people around to take an amount of money in her wardrobe and quickly take care of her so that she won’t die. She died but regretted her actions before she eventually died.
What are the signs that could point to anybody who is attempting or about to commit suicide?
Depression is a major risk factor for suicide. The deep despair and hopelessness that goes along with depression can make suicide feel like the only way to escape the pain. If you have a loved one with depression, take any suicidal talk or behavior seriously and watch for the warning signs such as:
• Talking about killing or harming one’s self
• Expressing strong feelings of hopelessness or being trapped
• An unusual preoccupation with death or dying
• Acting recklessly, as if they have a death wish (e.g. speeding through red lights)
• Calling or visiting people to say goodbye
• Getting affairs in order (giving away prized possessions, tying up loose ends)
• Saying things like “Everyone would be better off without me” or “I want out”
• A sudden switch from being extremely depressed to acting calm and happy
Are there roles the society, government, and religious organizations could play to reduce the incidents?
-Mental health should be included in the Primary healthcare programs. As health professionals in general medicine are helping in screening people for different ailment, mental health professionals like clinical psychologist can also screen for psychological disorder and intervention can quickly be provided.
-Psychoeducation and creating awareness on suicide in our communities, churches, mosques etc.is very important. Through these, many people will understand the signs and symptoms of depression and suicide and can recognize a neighbor, classmate, roommate etc. that is at risk of committing suicide and quickly help.
-Psychological centres and services outside the 4 walls of psychiatric hospitals are necessary, where people can go in freely without stigmatization and get psychological first aid depending on their psychological challenges. In most cases, there is always enough time to discover who is at risk and the vulnerable and give psychological first aid before things get out of hand!
-School curriculum-The training of basic life skills should be included in students’ curriculum at every stage! Development of basic life skills should be both at homes and schools where children learn and practice what they learn.
The case of parents forcing their children to do what goes beyond their capacities, does it contribute to it?
Forcing children to do what goes beyond their capacity is not exactly the issues here. The issue is to know if the parent has equipped the child as he/she grows. Training of a child starts immediately after birth and each psychosocial stage comes with its own uniqueness, achievements and challenges. If a child is not skillful, frustration will set in as the child will not be able to cope with the level or standard the parent is demanding from the child. There will definitely be a carryover and ‘We don’t learn to fight at the battle field’
But in the olden days, parents also challenged their wards to work harder and suicide was not this much, so why the increase nowadays?
Good Parenting style and skill here cannot be over emphasized. A lot of youths are vulnerable and are confused at the same time. They are not well equipped with basic life skills and are not well guided. A lot of them are so impatient and most of the time, they don’t even know why they need to work hard and if they do, they might not have the capacity to do it. A 5-year old that have been following his father to farm and has been making a lot of mistakes and error and the father has been correcting and teaching him that it is okay to make mistakes or to fail. He has also been telling him how important it is for him to work hard in order to own his own farm and be independent. No wonder at teenage age, this particular child will be ‘man’ enough to ask for his own portion.
Let us compare this to a child in Primary school nowadays, whose mother is bribing the teacher in order to give him pass mark. In secondary school, the parent also arrange for a miracle centre for WAEC as well as JAMB. Unlike in the olden days, we are not teaching the child that ‘if there is no pain, there is no gain’ and the part of the pain is making errors, mistakes, falling, failing and learning, which are essential part of leaning and life skills building. On getting to University, this particular child will not be able to handle minor stress such as academic challenges, failure and broken relationship. Telling the child to work hard all of a sudden is like issuing the child a death warrant.
Do you think movies (foreign) also contribute to factors responsible?
Many people are watching foreign movies but yet, not all are affected. Why? As he thinks in his heart so is he. Except in cases where there is impulsivity or auditory hallucination, where the victims seem not to be in control, most of the time, suicide is well planned. If you are thinking of suicide, you will search for how to commit suicide even when it does not surface in the foreign film you are watching and if it is there, you might not be affected by it, if you are not thinking about it. Yes, getting information about suicide on internet or through films will affect the vulnerable and those that are at risk.
What are ways to savage the situation?
To savage the situation at hand, I believe we should do something about:
Prevention- Prevention is always better than cure. We still don’t know how some other youths will react if they find themselves in similar situation. Even the Bible says ‘if you fail on the day of adversity then, your strength is small’. Let us build their resilience through training of the basic life skills it does not matter if they are thinking of suicide now or not.
Psycho-education– Awareness and Understanding of the warning signs of suicide will help all to recognize when our ward, friend, neighbor etc is at risk and quickly call for help.
Orientation programme for undergraduates– ‘Mental health wellbeing in academic pursuit’ should also be focused on while giving the new students orientation and they should also be encouraged to visit Clinical Psychologist anytime they have psychological issues they are battling with as suicide is not the answer.
Creating Helplines– helplines that are readily available for people in distress to call as well as close friends or relatives if one discovers that someone is at risk
Giving support– I have heard a lot of people wondering how someone can commit suicide because of ordinary broken relationship. We should realized that people are of different personalities as I said earlier on and this will definitely be reflected in the ways they react to the events and happening around them and how they handle issues. So, let us support the vulnerable by focusing more on how they are being affected by the challenges they are facing and not the challenge itself.
Early screening and Psychological intervention– should be provided for those at risk. For example, Clinical Psychologists can work on our cognition or other psychological problems identified before it is too late.
I want to say at this juncture that we should all take time to reflect on our strength, thoughts and personality which are fundamentals in how we react to stress, which is much more important than the stress itself, before it sends us to an early grave.
I will also like to thank the Government of Ondo Sunshine state, and our able Governor, Arakunrin Oluwarotimi Akeredolu for the recognition and the support given to Psychology as a profession in the state. I want to say that we the Psychologists in the Sunshine State, God helping us, are ready for the task, as the State government continues to give us support.