Abuja, Nigeria: The first time I learnt of suicide, I was about five.
A man had committed suicide within my father’s jurisdiction and as the then presiding Magistrate; he had to sanction an official inquiry into the cause of death. He reviewed the pictures in his library at home and later that night, I overheard him telling my mum that the deceased had lost his entire family in a fire accident and had been unable to go on living. The next day, I snuck into his library to see the pictures for myself and I stumbled out shook. Until that moment, I had imagined that after birth, everyone had to grow old before they could die. I kept to myself for the rest of the day, trying and failing to understand what tragedy would push a man to suddenly cut his own life short.
I was raised in a Roman Catholic home and as far as I know, the Church condemns suicide. In addition to the dictates of religion, suicide is perceived as a taboo amongst my people. One who takes his/her own life brings disgrace to his kin and would be denied of his/her final funeral rites. The primary reasons for this are clear, the first being that one’s life does not belong to him alone. Human life is also a sacred gift to the family and one’s kin and must be treasured as such. The second reason is the ever-optimistic belief of my people that tomorrow will be better regardless of today’s ills.
In the rare occasion where suicide occurs, many in my society would shake their heads. They would split up in groups; wonder aloud whether such and such was enough justification for the act but would conclude, as they always have, that as human beings, we were meant to keep going, regardless of our adversities or peculiar challenges. Many Nigerians were raised this way, and most of my friends only became aware of the frequency of suicide attempts through the social media.
In 2009, it was reported that about eleven people killed themselves following the sudden death of the pop star Michael Jackson.
In 2015, Zayn Malik, an American Singer left his boy-band One Direction. In response to this, the hashtag #CutforZayn trended on Twitter. Put simply, the hashtag was a call for One Direction fans, particularly teenage girls to cut themselves with sharp objects as a form of protest against, and a means of dealing with Zayn’s departure from his boy band. Along with this, an unconfirmed number of suicides.
I brought this up in a conversation with my Mom recently and she shook her head in exasperation. Then she shrugged and told me that Westerners have their bellies full, and lead more secure lives than the rest of the World. This was her way of saying that these matters were First World problems. The challenges of a people living above the basic problems of survival, food, shelter and good education. In this regard, I was reminded of Abraham Maslow’s pyramid of needs.
Now I do not intend to treat lightly the plight of those genuinely struggling with mental illnesses of various kinds. Personally, I sincerely hope they get the help they need to live better lives. My concern here centers on how easy it has become for us to give in to our anxieties and label them ‘mental breakdowns’. We are at the global market and it seems sadness has become a valuable currency. It has become near normal for people to proclaim themselves depressed, and to commit suicide to prove it while everyone else blames the tragedy on the careless comments of someone else millions of miles away.
When did we come to this place, where social validation or the lack of same, from strangers who know nothing of our lives rank higher than everything else? Have we truly run out of pressing issues to worry about? How have we become a generation so desperate to follow a cause, any cause that we take our own lives and sometimes the lives of others as a means of protesting some perceived societal or personal injustice? And why are all of these most prevalent in Western countries?
Could it really be that First World countries have it easier?
From the dawn of our existence, man’s anxiety was rooted in fears with life and death ramifications. The cave dwellers wondered if they would be eaten by giant mammoths and in the 1800s, they might have worried about diseases and epidemics as well. In the 1940s, societies worried about the horrors of war as well as its aftermath. In the ’70s and ’80s, young people must have worried about school and grades and how it might impair their chances of leading good lives. All these fears have more or less disappeared in the most developed nations of the world. Now, young people don’t even have to worry about grades because the New School of Thought preaches that you don’t need to do well in school to be successful. As a matter of fact, fail as much as you can, but “fail fast and fail forward”.
Rather than improve on our mental health, the reverse has been the case. Depression, anxiety levels and the prevalence of mental health issues have steadily risen over the years. There are more incidences of suicides now than ever before. A lot of the developed countries of Eastern Europe and Asia have some of the highest rates. Conversely, some of the most troubled nations on earth like Syria and Afghanistan have the lowest rates. I believe there are real mental issues genuinely affecting some people today and I wish for them all the help they need. But I also believe that a lot of the rest, especially as found in this generation, are self-inflicted and induced. Fueled on by a society which has made small mental boxes her lifeline, it seems self-pity has become the razor and our lives the new wrist. We continually create our own fears and proceed to drown in them because ‘sit up and face your fears’ is no longer mainstream.
When I was younger, these behaviors were regarded by the average Nigerian as predominantly Western. As I wrote here, the Nigerian society expects her members to be strong so that any thoughts as to suicide, anxiety or deep mental contemplations were alien. ‘Panic attacks’ were left for oyibo people (a general term used to refer to a Caucasian person of European descent and perceived not culturally African) and were considered “First World” problems by many. Personally, I thought of this as a privilege because their societies had progressed to the points where basic human needs and problems are few and far in between.
In recent times though, youngsters in developing nations are slowly latching on to the depression and anxiety epidemic. Subtly manifested in trendy catch-phrases like “self-love”, “you only live once”, “live your pains”, and “own your scars”, emphasis on human endurance is increasingly forgotten as daily recitals of anguish and pain gradually becomes the new norm.
One might argue convincingly that the social media, community fragmentation and the deterioration of the social fabric, is responsible for this in part. For instance, the African support system revolves around families and close-knit communities and addiction to the social media breaks down these traditional structures along with the support they provide. And for what? A life of immense loneliness once the phone goes off.
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I believe in the amazing things that happen when we refuse to throw in our towels. I have personally witnessed the most incredible acts of resilience displayed by humans, all a testament to man’s endurance in the face of adversities and atrocities. Problems are vital in our lives because they challenge what we know and make us better.
I’m sick of walking on eggshells on this one. We sell ourselves short when we create our own algorithms and succumb to their fears and we’ve got to stop.
Keep going, keep growing. Just don’t quit.
If you or anyone you know is considering suicide, help is available. If you’re based in the US, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on 1 800 273 8255. If someone is at immediate risk of self-harm, call 911.
If you’re based in Australia, contact Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14. If someone is at immediate risk of self-harm, call 000.
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