The Guyana Foundation has announced the findings of a research study into the underlying economic and social factors driving the high prevalence of suicide and suicidal behavior in Guyana.
This qualitative study was conducted by Ms. Serena Coultress, a researcher in the Global Health program at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, who was hosted by the Guyana Foundation earlier this year. During her time in Guyana, Ms. Coultress gathered data from three selected groups of stakeholders: 1) suicide attempters; 2) religious leaders, and; 3) mental health professionals.
Her findings indicate that suicide in Guyana is interconnected to poor coping skills associated with a cycle of violence that includes murder-suicide, interpersonal violence, corporal punishment, and child sexual abuse. These are inextricably linked, fuelling one another, and are amplified by predominant notions of masculinity, family dysfunction, sexual inequality and alcohol abuse – all of which are major catalysts for the poor coping strategies found across ethnic groups.
These findings are significant, as they offer insight and perspective into what is viewed as a “suicide crisis” in Guyana. In fact, only this past Thursday, the World Health Organization released its first suicide report, which lists Guyana as having the highest suicide rate in the world in 2012 – with an overall rate of 44.2 cases of suicide per 100,000 individuals.
The increased ranking for Guyana comes even though there has been an 8.5% decline in the country’s suicide rate between 2000 and 2012. This suggests that local efforts to combat suicide have simply not kept up with that of other countries, which have done a better job at tackling the problem. The WHO report also highlights the disproportionate number of suicides that are committed by male Guyanese – the suicide rate was higher for males than for females across all age groups. In 2012, the overall suicide rate for males was 70.8 per 100,000, while that for females was 22.1 per 100,000.
Ms. Coultress’ study found that the disproportionate number of suicides committed by males was linked to societal expectations of gender roles. These gender roles are shaped by culture, where men are viewed as “providers.” Those who did not meet these expectations were subjected to stigma and social isolation.
Of particular note was the depressed economy that inhibits some men from maintaining employment and fulfilling their “provider” role. Where suitable coping skills were lacking, this resulted in conflicts, which, in some cases, led to violent expressions towards female partners that were potentially aggravated by alcohol abuse.
The lack of suitable coping mechanism feeds a sense of hopelessness and frustration, which, inevitably, requires an external outlet. Suicide is then viewed by those who attempt it as a “solution” to the problems faced, unless alternative coping strategies are introduced, or personal circumstances are altered.
The study also found that in Guyana, the role of ethnicity in suicidality has been overemphasized. Although problematic gender roles were found to be amplified within Indian and rural community, it was impossible to say with any certainty whether these gender roles were driven by the Indo-Guyanese culture, or the rural location of many predominantly East Indian communities.
Participants in the study also highlighted their belief that the suicide rate may be higher among the Amerindian population, but this remains undocumented due to their largely isolated locality. Additionally, when suicide is recast to include “suicidal behavior” inclusive of reckless behavior, the differentiation between Afro-Guyanese and Indo-Guyanese was less obvious.
In light of this study’s findings, Ms. Coultress’ main recommendation is that suicide prevention in Guyana cannot be solely focused on coping strategies and on tackling the sense of hopelessness, as these occur late in the process towards suicidality, in which individuals are likely to have already suffered abuse, stigma, isolation or poverty.
Suicide cannot be considered or redressed in isolation. Instead, an effective solution requires a collaborative and broader approach, and the efforts of mental health professionals must be supported by broader social change.
Meanwhile, Managing Director of the Guyana Foundation, Anthony Autar, expressed thanks to the participants in the research study, and to Ms. Coultress for her work in Guyana. “We have long-known that Guyana has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. However, one of the factors that has inhibited efforts to tackle this problem was the lack of insight into the reasons for the high prevalence of suicide in Guyana.”
“The findings of this study provide invaluable insight, and will be of great assistance to the Guyana Foundation, and hopefully to other entities, as efforts continue to end the senseless loss of lives. We wish to express our deepest appreciation to all the participants who made this study possible, and to Ms. Coultress for the sacrifices she made in coming to Guyana to undertake this study.”
“The Foundation will continue its efforts to bring relief to people in need across Guyana, with an emphasis on tackling the factors occurring early in the process towards suicidality. As the findings of this study suggest, suicide is preventable, but so too is the violence, abuse and isolation that precedes it.