Bridging life and death

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My heart went out this week to the young Guyanese woman who was rescued by two passing motorists after jumping off the Demerara Harbour Bridge in an apparent suicide attempt.

She is not the first to do so. In recent years, several people have taken their own lives by jumping off this bridge, reported the Guyana Chronicle. At that’s just one river crossing. Zoom out of this sad scene and you discover that Guyana has the highest suicide rate in the world. According to Demerara Waves, roughly every day and a half there is a suicide – and for every suicide there are around 20-25 attempts.

What lies behind these stark figures, I don’t know. And given I’ve only been here two months I wouldn’t attempt to hazard a guess. But there is something unique about the way suicide seems entwined in Guyanese life, culture and history. Never before have I seen it spoken about so freely and frequently.

Almost every time I read the newspaper here, there’s a story about suicide. Suicide pacts. Murder-suicides. Double suicides. Then there was the suicide march along the seafront. The poem about suicide delivered by a sparky schoolgirl at the National Library’s World Poetry Day event. The spoken word event themed around suicide. Francis Quamina Farrier’s ‘Makonaima Sacrifice’, about the two women who jumped off Kaieteur Falls last year. The minibus driver who called out to a sad-looking girl sitting on a wall nearby, joking that she looked like she wanted to kill herself.

Suicide even pervades Guyana’s national myths and legends. The country’s famous single-drop waterfall is named after old man Kai who (the story goes) sailed his canoe over the top of the precipice in an act of sacrifice to save his people. It inspired AJ Seymour’s famous poem The Legend of Kaieteur, which was later adapted into an orchestral piece.

Then there’s Cuffy, the ex-slave and hero of the 1763 Berbice Slave Rebellion, who committed suicide within a year of the revolt’s beginning. And, of course, not forgetting the mass suicide of more than 900 people in the Jonestown Massacre (although perhaps mass-murder is more appropriate). A connection that Guyana is still trying to shake off 38 years on.

In the UK, I find, we skirt the issue and avoid the word. When you say ‘suicide’, the air becomes charged, awkward and uncomfortable, so you change the conversation. It’s a conversation stopper. ‘We need to talk more about suicide,’ is a frequent plea from mental-health charities, but we bury our heads in the sand and hope it will go away.

But in Guyana perhaps there’s too much talk about suicide. According to Mindframe, an initiative run by the Australian government, “Research from more than 100 international studies suggests that reporting about suicide deaths has been associated with increased rates of suicide and suicide attempts following reporting.”

It seems we just need to strike the right balance. We need to talk about suicide, but not mythologise or revere it as a brave ‘sacrifice’. We need to talk about death, but also about life. What drives people to attempt suicide: depression, mental illness, feelings of being trapped, poverty, abuse… We need to make mental health something we discuss as freely as physical health. Like, “My back is really painful at the moment”, “I’ve been feeling really anxious lately,” “I’ve been diagnosed with diabetes” or “I don’t think I can go on much longer like this.”

We need to stop deluding ourselves that we should be happy and optimistic all the time, that everyone is as content or successful as they appear on their Facebook page. There will always be highs and lows in life. But on the sunny days we should remind ourselves how lucky we are and help those who are in the darkness, and on the dark days we should seek sunshine in whatever form we can find it. A hug from a friend, a long talk with a good listener, a potter in the garden, a walk somewhere beautiful, a heart-pumping run, a cooking session, a burst of singing, a scribbling session to put all our thoughts on paper, a good book…

In Guyana there are signs of a more balanced approach being implemented. Last year, the police introduced a suicide hotline. The pesticide board is handing out storage cabinets so farmers can lock away the poisonous agro-chemicals which are used in many rural suicides. Certain viewing platforms at Kaieteur Falls, I hear, are closed to the public. There’s an anti-suicide campaign in schools. But more is always needed. Are there enough psychiatrists and trained counsellors, for example? Enough doctors to administer medication? Enough training sessions for journalists on how to not report suicides? Because a drip feed of articles glorifying, dramatising or normalising suicide and death is not healthy. We need stories of survival. Of hope. Of struggling though. Of doing our best, not just the best.

We need to change the narrative, change the ending – like the two motorists did on the Demerara Harbour Bridge. We may not always be able to pull someone out of depression as easily as those two pulled the woman from the water. But if not a hand, we can at least offer a listening, non-judgemental ear. So when you next ask someone ‘How are you?’, hear what they’re not saying as well as what they are.

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