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Ghana's suicide stigma

A policeman stands guard over the scene of last week’s suicide at Trust Towers. It is estimated that four Ghanaians commit suicide each day.

I went to the scene of a suicide on the third day of my internship. The suicide victim, later identified as a former foreign ambassador and a university lecturer, ascended to the ninth floor of Trust Towers in downtown Accra, removed his brown leather sandals, slid open a sticky small double-pane window, and jumped to his death.

According to the Network For Anti-Suicide & Crisis Intervention (NASC), almost 1,600 Ghanaians committed suicide in 2008 – about four people each day.

The actual numbers, however, may actually be much higher. The NASC statistic only includes cases reported as suicide, and experts believe most suicides are covered up because of the repercussions they have for surviving family members.

“Suicide is one of the major pandemics in Ghana,” said Mary Addy, the founder of the local NGO Cultivating Minds which provides suicide prevention services.

Returning to the newsroom, I observed my coworkers’ reaction to the news. There was the expected sadness and perplexity, but also condemnation.

Suicide in Ghana is strongly prohibited and highly stigmatized. A reality, experts say, is actually worsening the problem.

All suicidal behaviour is illegal in Ghana, and attempted suicide remains a criminal offense. According to section 57 of the 1960 criminal code attempted suicide can, and often does, carry a penalty of up to three years in prison.

In addition, “Christianity, Islam, and traditional beliefs all converge to condemn suicide. [Suicidal] people are seen as immoral, cowardly, even aggressive,” Joseph Osafo, a psychologist and long-time suicide researcher at the University of Ghana, Legon, explained.

The comments under the news story on our station’s website reflect this popular stigma.

“Either he fathered a child illegitimately and didn’t want to be alive to see the disgrace, or was entangled in some shady business ventures,” wrote one condemning user.

Curious, I brought up the subject while talking to a Ghanaian friend. “If a friend came up to you and told you he’s suicidal, would you think any less of him?” I asked. “I think I would,” was his response.

The result is that no one wants to openly say that they’re suicidal, and seek the help they need because the condemnation is too harsh, Ofaso said. And suicidal people “are not getting the support of the society, [they] are not getting the support of the powers that be.”

It’s a reality Addy also takes issue with.

“It’s not a shameful act. Anyone can go through [depression],” she, who suffered years of depression, said.

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