By Zubeida Mustafa
ACCORDING to the World Health Organisation, suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15- to 29-year-olds worldwide. It has also been reported that the incidence of suicide has been on the rise in Pakistan. WHO put the figure at an estimated 13,337 for all ages in 2012. It would certainly be higher today.
Only recently, this paper reported three students killed themselves in Chitral after receiving their examination results, while another survived. The Human Rights Programme’s chairman reported that 40 to 45 people commit suicide in Chitral (population 447,362) every year.
The problem in Pakistan is further compounded by suicide’s stigmatisation, the changes in the law notwithstanding. It is regarded as haram by religion.
The situation has reached alarming proportions. Although mental health specialists have been warning the government about the rising rate of depression, to which suicide is closely linked, in Pakistan, one doesn’t see much being done to address this issue.
Many of the problems the youth faces are created by social media.
Hence a talk on ‘Suicide in Young People’ at the Centre of Biomedical Ethics and Culture Forum of SIUT by psychiatrist Dr Uzma Ambareen provided much food for thought for those who attended. The speaker focused on social stressors as these have a huge impact on young people. These pose a challenge to suicide prevention strategies as it is not in the control of individuals, be they parents, counsellors or mental health providers, to change the environment in which we live. For the young, peer pressure is a major factor in their lives. If they are kept away from the unhealthy activities of their peer groups without providing them alternatives, they feel stressed and alienated.
Dr Ambareen put it very succinctly when she described suicide as an act of hopelessness and a cry for help. That is why we need to respond to this cry immediately. Hence the importance of helplines and the need for parents and family members to have direct and close communication with one another so that problems that may seem insurmountable to a young person can be shared and a solution found before it goes beyond control. Needless to say, such a relationship must be cultivated from a very early age, as Dr Ambareen emphasised strongly.
Personally, I feel that many of the problems of the youth are created by social media and the demands of our academia as well as their inefficiency. Facebook has changed the culture of the youth creating strong narcissistic tendencies that can be frustrating for many.
According to Noam Chomsky, the internet is actually changing the physical structure of the brain that affects people’s mindset. You have to be the best. You have to be brilliant. You have to be likeable. As a result, one who does not have a long list of friends or followers, feels left out and inadequate. Without even realising it we are becoming an overly competitive society. That is not good for those who are not at the top, and obviously everyone cannot be at the top. Yet there are some who are at the top but feel inadequate.
Look at our academia. Our education system has been patterned in such a way that only those who are most naturally gifted are patronised. Even they depend on private tuitions to rise further. The ‘less abled’ are treated as not deserving any credit for whatever they are good at. This exam-driven competitive education system is not very good for the mental health of youth. At the other extreme are the youth who manage to study and have dreams but end up without a job. Imagine their feeling of being let down.
In the absence of any intervention from the authorities, parents will have to adopt strategies by offering other options to the young. Negative factors will have to be neutralised at individual levels. It is also time we stopped equating achievement with success. It is time for a change in perception and values. We should appreciate people for their own qualities and abilities.
Another major mental health challenge for the young and old is the gradual loss of control people are experiencing over their lives. Often, the youth feels unable to cope with the near breakdown of governance, inflation, rapid changes in policies and the abysmal law-and-order situation caused by strikes, protest marches and crime that create intense uncertainty. This state of affairs does not really promote equanimity in a person.
The traditional approach has been to identify those at risk and provide them with focused help. Perhaps the time has also come for all people — not just those with suicidal tendencies — to revert to age-old conventional friendships by creating smaller like-minded groups in real life in their own communities in which they enjoy the luxury of feeling rooted. This would give them a sense of security and identity. Is anyone listening out there?