Depression driving desperate students to suicide
Many were shocked recently by the news of the death of Owen Macharia, a marketing graduate who locked himself in a room, drank a poison concoction and then hanged himself with his belt.
It would later emerge that Owen had uploaded a suicide message on Facebook citing frustrations in finding better employment as the reason why he no longer desired to go on living.
Some social media users urged him to go ahead and kill himself. That is exactly what Owen did. This is not the only case. Just the other day, a form three student was reported to have hanged herself in a dormitory at Butere Girls High School.
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And one afternoon, in 2002, Irene Wanjiku, a fourth-year Bachelor of Arts student accompanied her cousin to a church event. They later diverted to a police station to say hello to one of his cousin’s friend.
To Irene’s shock, her cousin left her with this friend. Afterwards, as Irene confesses, the man convinced her to go to his home to meet her cousin there. What happened afterwards is something that has haunted her since.
Irene was sexually assaulted. “He forced himself on me and when I bled he laughed and made fun of the fact that I was a virgin. When my cousin later came for me, he scoffed at her that she should teach me how to be a woman,” Irene recalls.
For 13 years, this event remained her best-kept secret even as she struggled to find peace with herself. She became so troubled that at one point she attempted suicide. Irene joined campus in 2006 carrying this load with her.
“I drank a lot and slept around pretty much. I had low self-esteem and I hated studies. I was angry, bitter, and moody. Life just lacked meaning. The rape made me feel so filthy and that was the only way I felt I could relieve my pain,” says Irene
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During this period, Irene confesses that she quit college and suffered a broken relationship due to, what she would later discover was, depression.
“It was a very confusing time for me because I had suffered for quite some time before I got to know I had depression.”
This realisation drove her back to school to study psychiatry so that she could understand her condition better. She also began consulting a psychiatrist who encouraged her to share her tribulations, as part of her healing, with people she trusted.
Dr Anthony Ireri, Personality Assessment Expert and Lecturer at Kenyatta University’s Department of Educational Psychology, says three students on average per week visit the clinic seeking treatment with depression-related symptoms.
Some of the reasons that the students give include maladjusted relationships, financial challenges, stress, academic anxiety, low self-esteem, drug abuse, poor performance, career indecision, uncertainty about post-school life and other informational needs.
Co-Founder and CEO at Psychiatric Disability Organisation of Kenya Iregi Mwenja argues that the pursuit of higher education presents many firsts for learners that eventually results in depression to those who are psychologically or biologically predisposed.
“For most people, campus or college is the first time one has a roommate, a new culture experience and new relationships. As result, first-year students are more likely to be depressedthan their senior peers,” he says.
According to Mr Mwenja, other factors that result in depression include drug use, failing marriages, declining performance and disadvantaged backgrounds.
Many students find easy money enticing and the increase in the number of students participating in betting has resulted to suicide after gambling away all their money and in some extreme cases, their tuition fees.
In addition, failed relationships are a major contributing factor where students feel the need to end their lives once a relationship turns sour.
Samuel Talaam, a third-year studying Film and Theatre at Kenyatta University discovered he had depression when he stopped doing the things that he was once passionate about.
A failed relationship, academic as well as financial pressure during his first year consequently triggered depression. “Besides academic and financial pressure, I was in a long-distance relationship that took a toll on me. I had retakes and there are some units whose classes and exams I skipped,” says Samuel
The poor academic results made him turn to the Internet to check what was wrong with him. When he discovered it was depression, Samuel sought assistance to the school psychiatrist and was treated for anxiety and depression and put on an antidepressant.
Dr Ireri says these symptoms depend on the mental condition of the student: “Some of these symptoms include disturbances of school, home, or social events especially as marked by sudden drop in school performance, withdrawal from previously exciting activities or from friends, problems with concentrating or paying attention, memory disorders, illogical thoughts, or incoherent speech.”
“They may also show signs of being overly sensitive to how they are perceived by others, their failures, and their relationships. They will also show signs of hopelessness, helplessness, depression, unexplained fears of people, places, events, or objects (phobias), escapism, and general unusual or unacceptable behaviour like drug abuse and unwarranted sexual escapades. Overuse of defence mechanisms like denial, blaming, and projection are also indicative of mental health issues,” he explains.
Nevertheless, a student can get assistance through psychological interventions like counselling, guidance, and other forms of psychosocial support.
Extreme cases are taken to clinical psychologists or psychiatrists for further treatment. Kenyatta University, for instance, has a wellness centre that addresses psychosocial health (mental health included) well-being of students. It also has a directorate of student affairs and an Aids control unit that complement each other.
Ireri adds: “There is also the staff mentoring programme where university mentors are allocated specific mentees they mentor. Other forms of psychosocial support include peer support groups, clubs, welfare associations, a range of services at the university health unit, university-based student counsellors and peer counsellors, and bursary schemes to help the very needy cases.”
For Samuel, getting himself engaged in campus activities has assisted him to get over suicidal tendencies. He has even begun a club, dubbed Amazing Minds, to stir conversation on mental health.
“I lost a friend to suicide and this made me start Amazing Minds. Through media engagements, we have directly impacted numerous students on campus and many more indirectly,” he says
Dr Ireri believes that because of ignorance on mental health issues, Kenyans have not been keen to identify suicidal people particularly those who cry for assistance on social media.
“Ignorance and stigma about mental health has forced people, especially students, suffer in silence. People do not recognise suicide as a symptom of an illness. They associate it with spirituality and witchcraft instead of offering medical assistance to the individual,” he says
In his organisation, an assessment is done first before allowing an individual to proceed with therapy, social support and drug treatment.
“Get to the hospital first whenever you notice suicidal tendencies even as you seek spiritual support. The two work together hand in hand. Not one in isolation. Let’s support also support people who are ill and refrain from branding them as careless or cowards who cannot face life,” he advises.