President David Granger: Ministers of the government; Dr. George Norton, Ms. Volda Lawrence, Dr. Karen Cummings, Ms. Valerie Garrido-Lowe, members of the Diplomatic Corps, Dr. William Adu-Krow, PAHO representative; other distinguished invitees, ladies and gentlemen:
I am happy to be here this morning to join you in this very important forum, and I do believe my remarks may vary slightly from what you might have heard in the last hour and a half. But I am as disturbed as any other Guyanese about the high rate of suicide in our country and like you; I would like to feel that we are all searching for answers and I am sure that this morning we may leave with a better understanding of the causes of suicide.
Happy people don’t kill themselves; neither do hasty or thoughtless people. Paying $16,000 to hire a special taxi to travel 100 km from the Corentyne to Ogle airport and buying a $40, 000 ticket to travel to Kaieteur [Falls] – 250 kilometres away, then taking a running jump off one of the highest waterfalls on earth are not acts of madness or mental instability.
Successful suicide is rarely, if ever, sudden or spontaneous. It is usually premeditated. It requires careful calculation, a cool head and steady nerves. In the end, it certainly grabs the newspaper headlines, it gets a few days of front page coverage and it sends a message to the public.
Ladies and gentlemen this is what I call the ‘the Kaieteur effect’. It is, actually copycat conduct inspired by the inclination to imitate a successful, spectacular and staggering death. It aims to attract attention at a national and even international level and sometimes there is nothing else you can do in your entire life which is so spectacular. Stories about suicides are widely read; every suicide, from this perspective, is national news, it is international news. Individuals, obscure people, little known, could suddenly become significant. But suicide is not all spectacle; it can have deeper and darker roots than the shallow quest for publicity or celebrity status.
Suicidal persons often dwell in a wilderness of unhappiness, distress and depression. The existence and persistence of these conditions have made suicide a major public health issue in our country. As you have heard before from the experts, Guyana has achieved notoriety, as the suicide capital of the world. The country’s suicide rate as you’ve heard is one of the highest, well the highest in the hemisphere. One Guyanese kills himself or herself every two days, all year, every year. Deaths by suicide during the decade 2003 to 2012 were nearly 2000.
Numerous initiatives have been attempted to address the suicide epidemic. At the organisational level we know of the National Committee for the Prevention of Suicidal Behaviour, which was established 15 years ago. This was replaced by the National Committee for Suicide Prevention in 2007 and now we have another task force for suicide prevention. So the organisations are good.
At the governmental level we have a gateway programme; a gatekeeper’s programme (crisis hotline) and these are intended to train influential persons or to help to prevent suicide at the community level. Collaboration, as you can see today, has taken place with international organizations; with UNICEF, with PAHO and other organisations and we are grateful for that collaboration.
Numerous non-governmental organisations are sprouting; some of them come to see me. They all want to help, some from the diaspora, some at home. Many individuals have used their own resources, but again the numbers seem to continue to grow. And at the academic level, several studies have been commissioned and I am sure that we have a lot of data on suicide; conferences are held, workshops, seminars and training sessions have been conducted, but the numbers still grow.
Ladies and gentlemen there have been many events and efforts, but for one reason or the other their impact at the national, regional and local levels has been slight. Suicide might seem to some persons to be a permanent solution to a persistent problem. Victims, however, are unlikely to be suffering from simple concerns. There might be a variety of complex challenges, which they face and suicide simply seems as salvation coming at the end of a long struggle and bringing relief after long suffering.
Strategies to prevent suicide therefore must, as has been emphasised, provide for concerted, co-ordinated and collaborative approaches. These measures, in turn, must be supported by a practical implementation plan, which in my view is built on four pillars:
• First, there must be investigation and research to determine what are the causes of suicide are before we try to prescribe remedies. The findings of such research must provide insights into causation; they must form the evidential bases for well-designed and targeted interventions.
• There must be information. Information must be disseminated in order to spread public awareness about suicide. This information must be disseminated in all of our regions and communities. As you’ve heard, the suicide epidemic is truly an epidemic; it affects all of our regions, all of our ethnic groups, all age groups. Information is important for agencies such as the police and health personnel, who are often in the frontline in responding to reports of suicide. Parents, teachers, community workers, relatives and friends all need to know what to do to be able detect the risk factors associated with suicide.
• There must be an inclusive approach; a multi-disciplinary, multi-stakeholder approach. Suicide is not simply a health problem. It is also a social problem. It has personal, psychological and cultural dimensions. The prevention of suicide therefore, requires an inclusionary approach, one that deals with the personal, psychological and cultural. The problem of suicide in Guyana is of such magnitude that it will be necessary for all who are involved in the anti-suicide efforts to combine their efforts so that they can better coordinate the work that they are doing.
• And finally there must be some intervention; and these interventions include improving people’s ability to cope with their problems. It must include counselling; it must include the provision of access to persons who can provide advice. The inability to implement the necessary interventions is often a problem of resources, a problem of a lack of capacity that is why a collaborative effort, such as we are attempting today, is needed if we are to prevent suicide.
Guyana is a beautiful and bountiful and blessed country. Everyone can have a good life, everyone can have a long life, and everyone can have a happy life in this country. The success of suicide prevention measures therefore, would require an approach that helps people to understand that a good life is possible in this country. It will help to develop an approach that brings together stakeholders and channels their energies and expertise in this national campaign in which we are all engaged.
The National Suicide Prevention Plan is a bold attempt to provide a framework which could produce better results that we have had over the last decade. But ladies and gentlemen, I come back to the ‘Kaieteur effect’ – in the final analysis this is not a solution, perhaps it’s the avoidance of a happy solution. It remains nevertheless, a seductively sparkling symbol of an easy exit from the darkness of depression and despair. Every suicide should be seen as an indication of unhappiness.
Just last week Wednesday, the daughter of a middle-aged man – a not unsuccessful businessman; he wasn’t poor, he wasn’t destitute; he had a thriving little business but he killed himself and if you’ll forgive me for quoting what the bereaved daughter said, I quote, “My father said everyday he was going through the same struggle and it was better to take his own life to end his suffering”. End of quote.
We must work to find ways to build happy households and to end suffering by providing conditions for a good life. The Government, non-governmental organisations and international organisations have created a high level of public awareness by identifying suicide as a public health concern. Our task today is to provide solutions.
Public health public awareness campaigns, if they are to be effective, if they are to be successful, must address the personal concerns of those who are at risk of contemplating suicide. As I said, these persons are not mad but they need to know that help is available; they need to know what help is available; they need to know what form that help would take and where they can get that help.
So today we are engaged in an important workshop. The time for bemoaning the problem has passed. Talk will not end the deaths; action will and we need to take concerted action and I hope that this morning we will be able to determine causation and help to take the sort of action that could prevent further death. And I hope that in your deliberations today we will be able to find answers to this scourge that has been taking the lives of so many Guyanese and I pray that God may bless your efforts today.
I thank you!