Sam Sarpong was a young man who tirelessly worked his way into the fashion and entertainment realms of Hollywood, his face recognisable in fashion shows, MTV or BET – one of the most established bright Black Stars on the diaspora. On the surface, he was a man living the dream. And yet, as October 2015 drew to a close, this same gentleman found himself on a bridge in Pasadena, California. After a deliberation of 7 hours, and despite the pleas of family and law enforcement, Sam’s world literally came crashing down.
After the initial shock of the premature loss of one of Ghana’s brightest exports, came the questions. Why would he do it? He had it all, right? He had no reason to, right? Then came the whispers – it’s such an un-Ghanaian thing to do. Suicide is a selfish act – how could he do it when his family loved him? But you see, that is where a big problem comes in – when we attempt to apply reason and rationale to one of humanity’s most irrational of acts.
It is the incomprehensible nature of how a human being who lives to exist would find themselves at a point where they would willingly extinguish the flame of their own lives, which grants suicide an element of mystery. Those who have ever been truly suicidal will identify with the gravity, the darkness, the single-mindedness of suicidal ideation. They will note how life seems at a literal dead end. They will tell you how things become so desperate, all they can think about is release, and relief, and escape.
More than 800 000 people die by suicide worldwide every year – around one person every 40 seconds. Suicide is much more rampant in Ghana and among Ghanaians than you would initially expect or believe. Mental health experts estimate that in Ghana, five or more people take their own lives each day. Available statistics on suicide in Ghana indicate that Greater Accra region has the highest number of deaths by suicide. The network for Anti-Suicide & Suicide Prevention found 531 people between the age of 9-19 kill themselves in Ghana every year. Approximately 1500 cases of suicide occur in Ghana annually – constituting about 7% loss in GDP. And those are just the reported cases, with it being suggested that there are four unreported cases for every reported case – so you’re looking at more than 6000 suicides in Ghana each year.
But, anybody who attempts to commit suicide in Ghana commits a criminal act (as per section 57, clause 2 of the Criminal Offences Act of Ghana). The Mental Health Society of Ghana (MEHSOG), has asked the Constitutional Review Committee and the Ghana Law Reform Commission to revise this. People who attempt to commit suicide likely suffer some form of mental disorder and should rather be referred to the appropriate mental health facility for counselling and treatment.
According to Mavis Darko-Gyekye, a lecturer in social work at the University of Ghana: “Suicidal behaviour and threats of suicide have been ignored in the country even though they exist. These are issues that no one talks about because suicide is considered a taboo.” Because they are not talked about, the silence engineers an environment where warning signs are missed and alarm bells fail to be heard. And as I have stated in previous articles, there is a general taboo which surrounds mental health as a whole, which means that there are so many out there who do not seek the help they need – simply because it is not available, or because they believe nobody cares. Mavis Darko-Gyekye goes on to say how “Unfortunately, we are training personnel that are not being utilized because people do not want to be associated with anything that would lead to associating them with mental illness.”
Suicide is still deemed a taboo and abomination among Ghanaian ethnic groups and faiths. It can be deemed a ‘bad death’, and social reproach can be observed by behaviours such as discouraging prolonged and public mourning, and in some places even observing decontamination rituals to purge families or communities of the taboo of suicide. Dali (2007, cited in Adinkrah, 2011) has found out that among some groups in Northern Ghana, when suicide occurs inside a house or an apartment, the corpse must be removed through a window or a special aperture in the wall. This is because conveying the body through the doorway permanently desecrates the doorway for the living. In this way, Ghanaian culture attempts to discourage people from taking their own lives.
Despite the taboos and intolerance, suicide still plays out. The vast majority of those who complete suicide amongst Ghanaians are male (Adinkrah, 2010) – indicative of the cultural finding that males are less likely to discuss their issues and find it feminine to seek social support. Literature also shows that males are more likely to employ ‘immediate-lethal’ methods such as gunshots while females prefer less violent methods such as taking poison or overdosing on drugs. Dr Dan-Bright Dzorgbo, Head of Sociology at the University of Ghana, has noted that the suicide trend is increasing in Ghana, believing that social inequality and the wide gap between rich and poor exacerbates issues people may have in terms of dealing with poverty and trying to move up the social ladder.
So many issues. So many contributory factors. So many lives being lost. And yet the silence surrounding suicide and the apathy regarding its prevention is a lullaby leading many to cut their lives short. We must fight the tide which is causing many Ghanaian lives to fade to black too soon. It’s time to break the silence and shine a light on the subject – who knows how many lives will be saved if we do so.
Feeling depressed or suicidal? Don’t suffer alone – please contact Samaritans.org or if you’re in Ghana, contact 233 244 846 701 (24/7 hotline)
By Dr. Jermaine Bamfo (@Dr_Jabz27)