Suicide in Sri Lanka

by padraigcolman

This article was published in the Sunday Island on July 2 2011


Annually, one million people kill themselves. World Health Organisation statistics show that suicide is the thirteenth-leading cause of death worldwide. Asia accounts for 60% of all suicides. Sri Lanka used to be near the top of the league table but, according to Sri Lanka Sumithrayo, an organisation set up to help prevent suicide in Sri Lanka, the rate has reduced from 47/100,000 of the population in 1995 to 20/100,000 in 2008.
I know two Sri Lankan families who lost daughters. One was a Sinhala Buddhist family, working class and caring. The daughter had been on heavy medication for epilepsy for a long time. The second family was Tamil Hindu. The father was a veteran KP on a private estate. One daughter set fire to herself on her wedding day. A teenage Muslim neighbour of ours took poison after a row with his father. There is an adage: “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” Anecdotal evidence suggests that, across different cultural groups, there is a peculiarly Sri Lankan mindset that sees suicide as a response to fairly trivial reverses.
In his book on suicide published in 1897, Emile Durkheim introduced the concept of anomie , a mismatch between personal or group standards and wider social standards. Durkheim wrote: “The individual yields to the slightest shock of circumstance because the state of society has made him a ready prey to suicide.”
According to Durkheim, stronger social control among Catholics results in lower suicide rates. Durkheim argued that Protestant society has lower levels of integration than Catholic. Also, for a Catholic, suicide means usurping the powers of God. Suicide is against the “natural order” and thus interferes with God’s master plan for the world. The Catholic writer GK Chesterton called suicide “the ultimate and absolute evil, the refusal to take an interest in existence”.
What about Buddhism? Michael Attwood has examined the scriptures. “In the Vinaya generally, suicide is condemned. Assisting or encouraging suicide is equal to the gravest offences and demands the strongest possible response… The first of the Buddha’s Noble Truths tells us that we cannot run away from pain, that it is there in everything we experience in the world. In responding to those who are contemplating suicide, or who have attempted it and lived, we face a difficult task. …What seems important is the imaginative identification. If we are able to empathise with others then we will be more able to face our own suffering, and therefore in a better position to help others face theirs.”
Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus, argued that much of our life is built on the hope for tomorrow, yet tomorrow brings us closer to death; people ignore the mathematics of how many more years we are likely to have left in the tank and live as if they didn’t know about the certainty of death; once stripped of its illusions, the world is a strange and inhuman place; true knowledge is impossible; rationality and science’s explanations fail us as meaningless abstractions and metaphors. To Camus, fleeing from the absurdity of reality into religion, illusions or death is no answer. Instead of fleeing the absurd meaninglessness of life, we should embrace life passionately.
Sisyphus tried to defy Death and his punishment was to spend all eternity pushing a rock up a mountain; the rock rolls down again and Sisyphus has to start again. “The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious.”
WHO estimates that mental disorders are present in more than 67% of suicides. The WHO definition of the term is wide-ranging, covering such behaviour as substance-abuse. Chronic excessive alcohol intake directly causes the development of major depressive disorder in a significant number. Alcoholism is a problem in Sri Lanka, although many young people who have never touched alcohol kill themselves. The Buddhist precept against alcohol is motivated by the evils that it can lead to, such as domestic violence and sexual misconduct.
Unemployment undermines self-esteem. When I worked for the Social Security Advisory Committee in London in the early 80s, we knew that the government was suppressing research which showed that unemployment was causing alarming rises in suicide rates among young men. Poverty is a major cause of depression.
The Samaritans organisation was founded in 1953 in England by Chad Varah, a Christian clergyman who also helped to found and write The Eagle, an improving comic popular in my youth in the last century. There are now 201 Samaritan branches in the UK and Ireland. The international network is known as Befrienders Worldwide. Sri Lanka Sumithrayo is part of this network.
Sumithrayo’s objectives are:
* To render assistance to persons in despair or distress.
* To provide solace, friendship, guidance and relief to persons in distress or despair.
* To assist in rehabilitation of those who find themselves in a helpless state and seek help to lead a fruitful way of life.
Sumithrayo’s research found that almost 75%, of suicides in Sri Lanka occurred in rural communities and up to 55% involved pesticides. The Sumithrayo Rural Programme was set up in May 1996, staffed by a few rural volunteers, and volunteers from Colombo & the Colombo & Kohuwela centres. As well as offering emotional support and programmes to change community attitudes about suicide, direct practical action has been taken by providing lockable storage devices for pesticides.
Sumithrayo volunteers are trained to befriend people who are emotionally distressed. This does not mean being judgemental or giving advice or solving problems. “Befriending is the art of positive listening to troubled feelings and helping distressed persons to explore healthy options which can ultimately lead to empowerment and a positive approach to life’s issues.”
I have had a great deal of experience in dealing with voluntary organisations in the UK and to a lesser extent in Ireland and Sri Lanka. It seems to me that people who volunteer for charitable work have mixed motives which often undermine the effectiveness of an organisation. David Cameron’s Big Society cannot substitute for public services. I have provided support for Sumithrayo over many years and my wife has worked as a volunteer. The suicide rate in Sri Lanka has reduced and Sumithrayo must deserve some credit for that. However, I have seen with my own eyes how the organisation works at a local level. I have seen how difficult it is to recruit volunteers who are suited to the work and who can also spare the time in these economically straitened times.
I was particularly saddened to learn recently that Sumithrayo volunteers were reluctant to visit a former colleague at a time of chronic illness and emotional need. This lady, when in better health, devoted much of her time and energy over some thirty years to befriending, carrying out administrative duties and getting donations from abroad. She was told to visit a centre but she can hardly walk.
Befriending seems to be at the core of Sumithrayo philosophy. If befreinders cannot find the time to visit a befriender what hope is there?