AS the world marks Suicide prevention Month this September, a rather disturbing trend has reared its ugly head in Zimbabwe. Within a space four weeks, two local tertiary male students have committed suicide over matters of the heart. It’s possible that there could be more other male students struggling with mental health issues right now and probably contemplating the worst and without proper mechanisms and interventions in place, more lives could be lost.
By Michael Gwarisa
Suicide is preventable but why is it that we continue losing lives to this ever-growing menace? Unlike road accidents that happens instantly, suicide is not something that happens out of the blue. Many a times, the symptoms are there but rarely do we pay attention to them. Due to the African upbringing and culture, mental health issues are frowned upon and for many, mental health is synonymous with schizophrenia, that stage where one moves around in ragged clothes eating from trash bags.
The situation gets worse in men or males where society expects them to toughen up, show a bold face and bottle it all in even if they are going through the most turbulent times. Mental health in tertiary institutions in Zimbabwe has for a while been neglected and of late the picture shows that more male than female students are committing suicide. This is largely to do with the poor health seeking behavior in males especially when it comes to issues to do with mental health as majority of men and boys find it difficult to talk to someone or seek the services of mental health or Psychosocial experts.
In tertiary institutions however, even though most Universities and Colleges have set up departments that deal with mental health issues, little or no attention in terms of investment and capacity building is being given to these departments. What then should University and College students do when faced by a threatening situation in the absence of a well coordinated mental health or psychosocial support system?
Zimbabwe’s top Psychologist, Dr Kudakwashe Mchena says most institutions of higher learning in Zimbabwe were not prepared to deal with the ever increasing mental health burden and adopting a peer-to-peer counseling model could act as a bridge between an institution’s mental health experts and the students.
Peer counseling is a helping process that involves one-on-one interaction or interaction between members of a group, who have several things in common. In an academic setting, it usually refers to students helping their fellow students. It is a way of relating, responding and helping people, aimed at exploring thoughts, feelings, issues and concerns, with the hope of reaching a clear understanding and make informed decisions.
The issue of addressing suicides among our institutions of higher learning is very critical. I think there has been lack of will and zeal amongst administrators across many institutions of higher learning. To them, it’s the belief or thinking that institutions of higher learning focus on educating young people only and not to help them mentally. The reality of it is that we are losing a lot of young men or young people through suicide which can be avoided.
“We realize that the professional services that are available in the country and institutions of higher learning do not address the needs of young people. What we once did back then is that we then trained young people to be able to talk to their peers and engage in a more constructive way to help them with a lot of mental health issues and our focus was mainly on suicide which is mainly caused by depression and so forth. Adopting this apporach could go a long way in alleviating the increasing suicide cases,” said Dr Mchena.
He added that such an initiative if implemented could cascade to high schools and ensure young people are aware of mental health issues at a very young age.
Peer counselors are trained in communication, listening skills, assertiveness, ethics of peer counseling, issues of confidentiality and breach of it, boundaries regarding helping others, and basic counseling skills. A peer counselor is also trained on when to refer the person to a professional counselor.
Though they receive training, they are not certified counselors. For campuses with a counselor, a peer counselor becomes a bridge between the counselor and student. In the absence of a school/college counselor, peer counselors help their fellow students understand their emotional and behavioral disturbances and work on solutions. In some cases, they also refer them to a professional counselor in their area.
Dr Mchena added that through the peer-to-peer model, it is not juts fellow students going through a mental health issue who benefit but but peer counselors themselves make positive gains during their training and practice.In other countries, Some foreign universities ask for NGO/volunteer experience. Students can list peer counseling experience in their resume when applying to such institutions.
He also added that more attention should be given the male students as available data has proven that more males commit suicide compared to women and people should never take suicide threats especially in males as a joke.
“The issue to do with suicide amongst men is well documented and a lot of young boys and men are highly suicidal especially when they are faced with life challenges. You find that a lot of girls threaten suicide but very few carry out that. Women and girls find it difficult to carry out the suicide whereas for men and boys it’s very easy. Once a man sets himself to commit suicide, they can easily find means and ways to do that and they always do that.
“For some men, when something terrible happens, the first thing that they think of is committing suicide and that’s you have realized that a lot of these young boys in high school or in universities they quickly think of committing suicide which is a very reality of situation. We are losing young ambitious minds to something that can be managed or something that can be controlled. Suicide is not something that is automatic but is a mental health issue that can be managed and we are in this month where we are supposed to be celebrating and advocating for Suicide prevention.”
Using the latest crude data, Zimbabwe has the 34th highest suicide rate in the worldand the fifth in Africa, behind Lesotho, ESwatini, South Africa and Botswana. The latest available WHO data on suicide, for 2019, shows Zimbabwe has a crude suicide rate of 14,1 deaths per 100,000 population.