We need to change how we view mental illness and suicide

The late actor Charles ‘Charli’ Ouda. [Courtesy]

The sudden and unexpected death of notable figures in society tends to send shockwaves and spark discussion both online and offline.

The untimely demise last week of beloved actor Charles ‘Charli’ Ouda was no different, with many speculating on the cause of his death, even as the family has asked for time before revealing the events surrounding his death. One conversation that has stood out over and over, and bears further analysis, is that surrounding suicide and, accompanying it, mental illness.

It has been clear from observing conversations around these two issues that the population overall considers the completion (and perhaps even the attempt) of suicide to be scandalous at best, and criminal at worst.

These conversations around suicide tend to stand aside from the reasons behind suicide attempts, and specifically, reasons related to mental illness. Ironically, conversations that isolate mental illness as a disease to be overcome and conquered are much more lauded, pointing to a stigma that is associated with losing the fight against mental illness.

In Kenya, attempting suicide is considered a crime under law. Section 266 of the Penal Code which was originally passed in 1930, states that “any person who attempts to kill himself is guilty of a misdemeanour”. Amendments to this Act over the past 93 years of its existence have not made an effort to do away with this clause, speaking to our national psyche on the question of suicide. Kenya’s Mental Health Act of 1989 also makes no mention of the correlation between mental illness and suicide, with the Act speaking only of the mental patient who seeks treatment and is expected to become well again.

The Penal Code is a colonial law that subsisted post-independence. It reflects not our traditionally held beliefs on the place of mental illness and suicide within our society, but rather the coloniser’s own deeply held negative views on these questions, especially as pertains to the native. In the United Kingdom, attempting suicide is no longer considered a crime, with the law having been abolished in 1961, even as the colonial administration continued to maintain it as a crime in the colonies. For Kenya, 60 years after independence, we remain stuck in this past ideology imposed upon us.

In her 1978 book, ‘Illness as Metaphor’, Susan Sontag delves into the ways in which we use valorizing language to accommodate certain diseases, and demonising language to apportion stigma to certain others that are considered embarrassing. Analogous to her time, she uses the examples of tuberculosis and cancer, explaining that, because these diseases attack mysteriously, they are spoken of as being cruel thieves of life from the sufferer.

In turn, the person who suffers from and strives to conquer these diseases is viewed through the lens of going through war as a valiant soldier. To this day, modern language uses terms such as ‘cancer warrior’ or ‘losing the battle’ to cancer to demonstrate the soldier’s journey, either to success or defeat.

By contrast, diseases that do not attack the body from the outside and are not bravely borne are considered in language to be weaknesses, and suicide is the worst of these. In the words of Sontag, “To perish from internal disorder - analogised to a disease - is suicide, something quite preventable; an act of will, or rather a failure of will (that is, of reason).” If, in the human consciousness, to perish from internal disease is akin to suicide, then to perish from suicide is akin to a crime against humanity.

If we are to change how we view mental illness, we have to change how we think and speak about it. This has to begin with how we view and speak of the negative end of mental illness, meaning suicide. Suicide can no longer be spoken of as a failure if we are to successfully handle the problems of the mentally ill. If anything, it is this same stigma that leads many to suffer in silence, rather than to speak up and ask for help.

-Ms Gitahi is a researcher and PhD candidate