A story is told of a man who worked hard to ensure he is promoted at work. He had missed the promotion twice already but this time, he was determined to put in extra effort and more hours to his work.
When the list of those promoted was released, his name was not on it. He became saddened, disappointed and withdrawn from everyone.
For the next couple of days, he never talked to or smiled at anyone at the office or home.
One day after work, he was deep in thought about his loans and what he would have used the promotion money to buy.
He was engrossed in thought and did not realise that he had stepped onto the expressway to cross to the bus stop at the other side.
He was run over and died instantly. What was on the lips of people for days to come was that he had several financial troubles coupled with his not being promoted.
They also added that he had problems with his wife and was owing fees for the kids at school. Everyone believed that he had committed suicide.
No one cared to think for a moment if this was true or not.
The overriding theme of existence is ‘perspective’. This is what determines our actions, thoughts, friendships and even choice of what to buy and what to reject.
Our perspective of others is entirely difficult to relinquish and this is probably why it is said that ‘first impression matters’.
It is in this first impression that our biases are born. If we are shown an object for the first time, how it is sold to us or what the person says about it propels our thoughts.
We hold on to the words, ‘the first time I…’ as proof that our perspective is legitimate and so we must not be found guilty for our choices.
In the story above, the man’s perspective was one that he leaned on unremorsefully.
Having missed two promotions, he thought that if he worked much harder than before, he would be sure to get promoted.
Worse still, he began to build his life around his promotion seeing it as the only alternative and nothing else.
This is the problem we often have; ‘the problem of the zero alternative’.
From our perspective, we feel that things must be only one way and never the other. When we are in a relationship, there must never be a breakup. When we have kids, they must all be intelligent and smart. When we compete, we must win.
We never spare a moment to ask ourselves what if this relationship fails? What if my kids are unruly and rebellious? What if I lose?
The zero alternative
The challenge with the ‘problem of the zero alternative’ is that because we are focused on one outcome, we are unable to prepare ourselves psychologically for the alternative which exists.
When the only alternative that we held in our perspective becomes a vanished alternative, rather than have a plan for the neglected alternatives which have now become a reality, we bicker ourselves with questions and say things like, ‘but I did this and that’, ‘why did this fail even after all my effort?’ ‘How could I have let myself be deceived?’
When our plans fail and we are unprepared for the alternative, we gradually slip into a pit of depression and often hate.
Hatred towards those we think are responsible and ultimately hatred of ourselves especially when we begin to say, ‘I am not good enough’ or ‘all they want from me is my body’.
From this stage, we have the choice to rise and try again or to continue to sink even deeper into the abyss of depression.
Worse is that, like the story, the person tries again and the outcome is still the same. Some may eventually give up on life and choose suicide as the only alternative.
Causes of suicide
According to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, causes of suicide from their study are physiological – imbalances in the brain chemistry (45%) and psychological (55%).
The psychological is further divided into failure in love and romance (32%), finance and career failure (10%), humiliation, shame, falling social status, disgrace, and loss of hope (13%).
Loss of direction, despair, and other factors make up for the remaining percentage.
While this data is not representative of the global population, it is reflective of the trend.
Those who have died do not speak but it is only the living that can say what they think led to the suicide especially when there is no note left behind.
Curiously, a lot of people die by suicide but no attention is given to it.
Grants can be set aside for climate change, sexual and gender-based violence, and even health-related interventions but rarely are allocations towards the prevention of suicide made a priority.
Added to this is the fact that our media houses all over the world are quick to report when there are mass shootings or when a killer is apprehended.
The news is centred around the killer but hardly is the same attention given to those who are ‘killers of themselves’.
The silence of society on this is perhaps a reason why it is not abating.
While we may not be able to stop occurrences of suicide, we may as well try to ensure that we do not contribute to it.
Just like the story above, many of us are the reasons why some people commit suicide.
Sometimes, we may not be the cause but we trigger it.
Two ways to approach this are:
- The approach of the living
- The approach of the ‘un-living’
The Approach of the Living
Several people have chosen to live irrespective of whatever life throws at them.
But just as our experiences differ, so does our capacity to handle obstacles vary.
While some may be able to handle ten rejections serially and move on as though nothing happened, others may not be able to handle more than two rejections.
We must understand this first of all because when we hear someone’s problems and we say, ‘it is because of this little trial’ or something of that sort, we worsen their grief.
Belittling them and their problems baptises them with shame and funnel them down deeper into the sea of depression.
No one’s problem is little or great. Our problems are as different as our capacity to handle them.
Secondly, telling those who want to commit suicide, ‘the pain does not end, you only pass it on to your family’ is perhaps one of the most unhelpful statements ever spoken.
The reason is that succour is not what is provided.
Rather, what is said is that you should not cause your family pain by committing suicide and so live with your pain.
More helpful words are ‘if you ever feel like giving up, talk to me first’. This is a call to action – the call for counselling.
This is certainly more helpful than saying, ‘don’t kill yourself so that I will not attend another funeral’.
Thirdly, we must understand that money does not prevent a person from committing suicide.
There are cases of people who have gotten to the zenith of their careers and have committed suicide.
The reason for stating this is that there is an erroneous belief among many that people get depressed and commit suicide because of the hardships in life which they cannot solve due to poverty.
The truth, however, is that many of our needs transcend material things. It is desirable to be comfortable but even problems of life do not avoid the comfortable.
It is important to note here, however, that suicide does not only mean death in the physical sense but could also be psychological.
Emotional suicide for example is an offspring of depression.
It is a state where nothing matters to the individual anymore and expresses indifference towards any and everything.
The same can be said about academic suicide or career suicide. We must be careful not to be the cause of any of these especially because we are all connected in one way or the other.
We relate with one another and are often responsible for our actions not only towards ourselves but towards others.
Finally, it is best for us to analyse our contributions towards either lifting or destroying a person.
We should think about those whom we have intentionally demanded a bribe from in any form (sexual, money, etc) and ask ourselves what our demands have done to them psychologically.
Many remain scandalised for life. Many suffer trauma that leads to their eventual decision to commit suicide.
We should also think about our actions towards those whom we do not desire a bribe from but we are hellbent on punishing either because the person is from a different ethnicity, religion, or maybe the person does not greet us as others do.
The call for kindness is not without reason. Every act of wickedness has its consequences and like the story above, we may have driven many to an early grave.
The Approach of the ‘un-Living’
The tag ‘un-living’ refers to those who either refer to themselves as ‘living corpses’ or have decided to end their lives.
Those who are depressed or suffering some form of anxiety and trauma may benefit from this section.
This is necessary because suicide is usually a progression from one state to the next.
Ensuring that there is sufficient knowledge out there is perhaps the first step towards saving a life or more.
One of the things to first note about life is that we all do not have control of all circumstances. Some things happen beyond our control while there are other things that happen as a consequence of our actions earlier in life.
As a result, we must realise that when bad things happen to us, it is not as though the world or society hates us. When we fail the final exams in school, we must – rather than sinking in sorrow – rise and try again. It hurts to have to repeat a year or a semester but time may heal all that.
The next thing to note is that it is acceptable to fail at something. The reason why we fail is simply that we do not have a manual for life.
Most of our knowledge comes from experience. It is the accumulation of experiences that is summed up as wisdom.
Attaining wisdom is slow and painful especially when our experiences alone is the basis for this.
We could come across experiences of others and use them occasionally to as a filter for our actions but one thing that we perhaps fail to understand is that experience is rooted in circumstance.
Ours may likely be different. This is why it is unproductive and an injury to ourselves when we compare ourselves with others.
Some may not get far in our shoes but they may appear to have the kind of life we desire to live.
We need to always maintain a balance whereby we are contented but not in stagnation. It is a condition whereby we are appreciative of our lives now while we plan towards a brighter one.
Additionally, a dose of regret is what helps us rather than doom us.
We may regret losing a job, spending time in a doomed relationship or getting into a business deal where you lose all your money. It is absolutely fine to have such regrets.
This is the basis on which wisdom is built as explained earlier.
We must find a different approach – a different alternative to all that we have been dreaming of but is now no more.
We also need to realise that self-hatred would change nothing, rather worsen our state. Many of those who have recovered from depression decided to let go of self-pity and regret and hold on to more positive signs, emotions, and alternative plans.
Perhaps pain exists in life as a reminder that we are human and imperfect. We must ensure that the pain does not sink but rather strengthen us to think about credible alternatives.
Finally, we need to understand the value of forgiveness. We should occasionally use it because it cuts in two ways; we can forgive the offender and we can forgive ourselves.
With self-forgiveness, we gradually get back on track and let go of the bad experiences. We need a high degree of self-acceptance whereby we are not distracted or influenced by what others say or how they want us to feel.
We must rise with independent thought about our lives. If something makes us unhappy, we should be free to change it.
If it cannot be changed – maybe a family member – then we have to be creative and think of how to cope or avoid it.
If these are not possible right at this moment, then we should survive the tide. A time will come when we will be independent to make our choices.
One thing that we must realise is the place of societal values and their effects on individuals.
Notably, societies, where suicide rates are almost non-existent, are societies that place a premium on values and acceptance.
On the contrary, societies that emphasize value-less things, are societies where the depression and suicide rates are high.
If we continue to emphasise wealth, control and all good things in life as things that can be easily gotten by maybe making an offering or as things that make us human, then our society will crumble.
It is time to reverse this. We must speak about the dignity of work (whether hard or smart). We must talk about how one may not be financially capable of owning a house but yet the person is dignified.
The marriage of the individual to the material as a basis for recognition would lead a lot of people down the path of suicide especially when they do not achieve such.
Perhaps it is time for us to become compassionate to one another. It is time to lend a helping hand and not just words.
In the story above, although he became reclusive, none (including those he worked with) ever asked genuinely, ‘how are you?’
None engaged in a conversation and none even offered to take him out for a drink where they would discuss.
These are opportunities to help before it is too late. After all, it is not only by our actions that we condemn a soul but also by inaction.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anthony Onugba is a project management professional with experience spanning from the creative, ICT, and development sectors. He has coordinated projects with funders such as OSIWA, European Union, German Embassy (Abuja), Ford Foundation, Mercy Corps Nigeria, Perspectivity (Holland), MacArthur Foundation, Culture at Work Africa, among others. He also consults for various Non-Governmental Organizations and facilitates workshops on Conflict Management and Prevention, Leadership, communication, Peacebuilding, Creative Writing and Film.
Anthony has also worked in several organisations. These include AIICO Insurance PLC, ChamsSwitch Limited (a subsidiary of CHAMS PLC), Lux Terra Leadership Foundation, and the African Writers Development Trust (AWDT). He holds a certificate in film production and directing, IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL), project management, and computer studies.
Anthony is the Founder of Writers Space Africa (WSA) and the African Writers Development Trust, which he currently runs. He is the brain behind the annual African Writers Conference and the annual African Writers Awards. He is a multi-genre writer with works spanning poetry, prose, drama, and children’s literature. He has authored seven books which include Mixed Emotions (2005), Reflections (2010), The Chronicle of Christ (2011), Amanda’s Crime (2015), and Lavender Tales of the Summit (2021). Some of his articles have been published in national newspapers and on his website.
Anthony is currently the Vice-Chairman of the Association of Nigerian Authors (Abuja Chapter). He is an animal and nature lover and a star-gazer. He loves to walk in the rain, kiss animals and go mountaineering.