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Worry as suicides among women rise

 Worry as suicides among women rise (Photo: iStock)

One morning, a couple of years ago, a family physician received a distressing call from a grieving man. He repeatedly uttered, “God, just take me,” as tears rolled down while he shared the tragic news of his wife's death.

The doctor’s heart ached for him, and with each word he uttered, she [the doctor] felt an overwhelming sense of sorrow.

“Despite my efforts, I struggled to find words that could adequately convey the depth of my sympathy for his unimaginable loss and anguish,” she said. “After ending the call, tears flowed for a woman I had never met.”

It was only later that the doctor learned the heartbreaking truth: the man’s wife had taken her own life, leaving her husband to confront the devastating aftermath.

As the doctor’s experience with the caller shows, suicide directly or indirectly affects all of us.

More worrying is what experts say is a rise in the number of women taking their own lives. Official statistics are hard to come by as Kenya does not keep a suicide registry and relies mostly on World Health Organization date.

The WHO puts Kenya’s age standardized suicide rate to be 11.0 in 100,000 while globally, close to 800,000 persons are said to die by suicide annually, or one person every 40 seconds, making it the second leading cause of death among people aged 15-29 years. Most of the deaths occur in low and middle income countries such as Kenya.

In addition, mental health experts say many cases go unreported due to the stigma associated with suicide. Kenya has criminalised attempted murder and few families would be willing to report such cases and label their kin criminals.

According to Kenya's Suicide Prevention Strategy 2021-2026, mental illness is the leading cause of suicides. 

“Mental illnesses are often associated with suicidal behaviour. Suicidal thoughts associated with depression lifetime prevalence is 7.9 per cent while for other mental illnesses it is 5-8 per cent,” states the Ministry of Health strategy report.

Why then, are women more prone to having suicidal thoughts?

Dr Hamida Ahmed, a clinical psychology practitioner and founder of Tulivu Counselling and Wellness Services says women take more time from suicide ideation to action.

A report by the Taskforce on Mental Health in Kenya says suicidal ideation refers to thinking about, considering, or planning suicide. 

“Women attempt more, but men succeed more,” says Ahmed. “Women take more time since they always think about their dependents before they execute the idea. They usually sit with it longer, evaluating all options.”

In addition, there are also more female adolescents who practice self-harm such as making cuts to their bodies, sometimes serious enough to lead to excessive bleeding and eventual death.

Such victims of self-harm become numb to the physical pain and carry the risk of making it more severe although experts are quick to state not all girls who do self-harm go through suicide. In most cases, desperation is a key factor that makes women attempt to take their own lives.

“Usually, a woman will have tried all she thinks is within her power before committing suicide. She does not do it as a crime, but more of looking for a solution. She thinks she is doing her children a favour by getting them out of the problem, hence killing them and taking her own life. To her, it is more of an act of love rather than a crime,” says Shalom Munyiri, a counselling psychologist and director at Ritro Group.

According to Ahmed, some suicide cases in women are as a result of anger turned inwards where they kill their partners and kill themselves as well. Some, she says, find themselves in toxic relationships with narcissistic partners hence the loss of self-esteem.

“Some women have used suicide to punish their partners. For example, such a woman hopes that by taking her own life, she will make sure the man never enjoys any peace after cohabiting with another woman,” says Ahmed.

Ahmed adds that due to hormonal imbalance, women may go through challenges and suffer from conditions they are not even aware of. As a result, they try to deal with such problems to no avail until they think suicide is the solution.

“A key feature of depression is being suicidal,” she says. “Many are not aware they suffer from depression. Sadly, they are blamed for being ‘lazy’, and if young, they are even kicked out of school. This is a health problem that needs to be solved.”

Unfortunately, the society, including the law, are biased towards victims of suicide or attempted suicide and according to Munyiri, some would rather be sarcastic than show empathy to someone attempting suicide.

“Some parents have sarcastically told their children that they will help them go through [suicide], for example, by getting them a rope. In Nairobi, a person threatens to jump over a building and civilians below are heard urging him, ‘ruka, ruka’, and wonder what was wrong with the fellow if he doesn’t,” she says.

Religion has not helped people with suicidal thoughts either as they are told suicide “is a one way ticket to hell” according to Munyiri. “Such ones fail to come and seek help with religious leaders casting demons out of them. They get a negative fear of God.” 

The law that should protect all has not helped either since in Kenya, attempted suicide is a crime punishable by a jail term of up to two years, a fine, or both while the minimum age of prosecution is set at eight years. There have been renewed calls for parliament to repeal such laws which experts feel criminalise mental illnesses.

The latest call came from the management of Mathari National Teaching and Referral Hospital urging lawmakers to repeal Section 226 of the Penal Code which imposes criminal liability on individuals who attempt suicide.

“Government should decriminalise attempted suicide as many women fear reporting their actions as that will lead to jail terms. It is a mental health issue,” says Ayieta Lumbasyo, an advocate and bioethicist.

Ahmed urges women to educate themselves about their mental wellbeing by attending forums on mental health. Empowering women also gives them financial security, she adds, since some may stay in abusive relationships because they rely on a man for all material provisions.

Some solutions, according to Munyiri, could be as simple as getting a good night’s sleep as it helps release mental stress. “As a woman, take on some hobbies because you are always doing things for others and forget about yourself. This gives you positive connections that make you laugh. You can also avoid taking on more than you can handle by learning to say no,” she advises.

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