Let's Talk: The Suicide Problem in Guyana
Written by: Tiara Jade Chutkhan
In North America, mental health is regularly recognized as a health concern the same way a physical illness is. While it has taken years for us to get to the point of having open conversations, creating effective and accessible resources and normalizing mental health conditions, many of our home countries are not even close to this point.
In the Indo-Caribbean community, mental health is often treated as if it doesn’t exist. People are often quick to refer to someone as a “mad woman” or “mad man” if their mannerisms are not what’s considered regular. Our modern generation understands that hardships and trauma can affect anyone regardless of age, gender, etc., but it has been a completely different experience for our parents and grand-parents generations. If you had food to eat, clothes on your back and a roof over your head, there was no reason to sulk and cry.
The effects of our community’s disregard have shown to be devastating.
In a 2012 report by the World Health Organization, Guyana was ranked the number one country with the highest suicide rate in the world. There were 44.2 suicides per 100,000 deaths— four times the global average. Black Bush Polder, a small rural community in Berbice, Guyana, is known by many as the "suicide belt."
The report was meant to bring awareness to the global issue of suicide and encourage countries with high numbers to take steps to address the problem. In 2015, Guyana became one of 28 countries to develop a suicide prevention plan in response.
Indo-Guyanese make up roughly 40% of Guyana’s population and account for 80% of suicides between 2010-2013. Suicide was the leading cause of mortality for young people ages 15-24 and the leading cause of death for people 25-44. With these startling numbers, it is beyond clear that there is a problem in the Indo-Guyanese community.
Guyana is one of the poorest Caribbean countries with a per capita GDP of $4,240.
There are less than 10 full time psychiatrists in the country, meaning those in remote areas would likely need to travel hours just to access help. Access to travel methods may be another issue in itself.
Many people live in rural areas and villages where poverty is prevalent. In these regions, agriculture is still the main source of income for families. Men work the cane and rice fields while women tend to the home and children. One of the most common methods of suicide in the country is ingestion of pesticides. Suicide deaths by poisoning was recorded to be 36% of all reported suicide deaths from 2009 to 2015. With the majority of people farming, pesticides are easily available and kept by most people.
Aside from poisons being easily accessible, rum shops are never hard to find in Guyana. Alcoholism is no stranger to Indo-Caribbeans, most of us have known of a family member, friend or someone within reach who has abused alcohol. Without access to help, people are bound to self-medicate and resort to what they know best. Under the influence, harmful thoughts or feelings of hopelessness are intensified and can push someone to react.
Stereotypes of Indo-Caribbeans “loving to drink rum” only fuel this problem. Family’s are often quick to shrug off the drunken uncles or cousins, saying “don’t pay he no mind” or “he rass like to sport.”
A 2010 study by the Pan American Health Organization reported nearly 80 percent of Guyanese adolescents had their first drink before the age of 14.
Domestic violence is another big problem in the Indo-Caribbean community and goes hand in hand with alcohol abuse. 1 in every 2 women in Guyana has or will experience Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) in their lifetime. There is little tolerance for domestic violence in North America and far more resources readily available. If you keep up with Caribbean news sites, there are cases of violence where women end up dead, but due to laws in Canada, America etc., there is justice for the victims. For the average woman in Guyana, there is no easy escape. Leaving an unhealthy situation can potentially lead to more violence or pressure to return and maintain the status quo.
In desperate situations, suicide can look like the best option to escape the trauma one is facing.
The concept of mental health is commonly misunderstood and misinterpreted. To older generations, superstitions and the belief in obeah (witchcraft) is common. Symptoms of a mental health disorder may be associated with dark magic cursing someone or their family for wrongdoings. People suffering are often ostracized or brought to a religious leader in the community for a prayer or cleansing of some sort to rid themselves of the “curses.”
Education and effective resources are essential to Guyana’s current needs. The country had few suicide prevention hotlines at one point, but attempted suicide is currently illegal and the hotline was run by police. The few that have ever called were arrested or punished. With fear of prosecution, people avoid the service and that resource becomes useless to anyone in need.
As of 2020, Guyana's rate has improved with 29.2 suicides per 100,000 deaths.
While the decreased number is a good sign, Guyana still ranks third worldwide.
Plenty of work needs to be done on the family and communities levels. Colonialism and indenture left our community with deep traumas and wounds that have never been healed. Newer generations are carrying this intergenerational trauma on their shoulders and trying to understand where it all comes from. With poverty, racial and political tensions currently rising in Guyana, people of all ages are being triggered.
The unresolved mental illnesses will only continue to have a dominio effect on Indo-Caribbean families and communities and fuel the toxic practices like alcoholism and domestic abuse.
With more awareness and spaces popping up to help, we can all do our part to improve the wellness of our immediate circles. Having open discussions with our friends and family, sharing education with older generations, creating safe, judgement free environments and actively dismembering stigmas are some of the things we can invite into our lives. On a bigger scale we can support and get involved with organizations that are doing the work to provide resources and professional help in our home countries.
Change doesn’t happen overnight, but when we collectively work together, we have the power to change the narratives of Indo-Caribbean culture.
Let’s have uncomfortable discussions, be fearless about speaking up and forget the tough skin and survival mode we’ve been conditioned to live in. As a people, those defence mechanisms no longer serve us.
Let’s encourage, support and create a future where life is precious and bountiful for all our people.
Crisis/Suicide/Helplines in Guyana Inter-agency Suicide Prevention Help Line
Inter-agency Suicide Prevention Help Line offers 24-hour emotional support to those who are struggling with depression in Guyana.
Tel: 223-0001 (telephone)
Tel: 223-0009 (telephone)
Tel: 223-0818 (telephone)Tel: 600-7896 (cellphone)
Tel: 623-4444 (cellphone)
Guyana Standard a 24-hour, toll-free crisis hotline that is available to members of the public who may be feeling suicidal or may have mental health issues.
Tel: (592) 603-3666
1. “ Suicide Rate By Country 2020.” Suicide Rate By Country 2020, 2020, worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/suicide-rate-by-country.
2. Contreras-Urbina , Manuel, et al. “Guyana Women's Health and Life Experiences Survey Report.” UN Women, 2019, www2.unwomen.org/-/media/field office caribbean/attachments/publications/2019/guyana-womens-health-and-life-experiences-survey-report-2019.pdf?la=en&vs=4309.
3. Mohammed, Farahnaz, and Follow @FarahColette on Twitter. “Guyana: Mental Illness, Witchcraft, and the Highest Suicide Rate in the World.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 3 June 2015, www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2015/jun/03/guyana-mental-illness-witchcraft-and-the-highest-suicide-rate-in-the-world.
4. Rawlins, William Campbell, and Madeline Bishop. “Trying To Stop Suicide: Guyana Aims To Bring Down Its High Rate.” NPR, NPR, 29 June 2018, www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2018/06/29/622615518/trying-to-stop-suicide-guyana-aims-to-bring-down-its-high-rate.
5. Reporter, Staff. “Tackling Pesticide Suicide.” Guyana Chronicle, 2018, guyanachronicle.com/2018/04/21/tackling-pesticide-suicide/.
6. Shako, Kay. “Sociodemogr Sociodemographic F Aphic Factors, Cultur Ors, Culture, and Suicide in Guy e, and Suicide in Guyana .” Walden Dissertations and Doctoral Studies Collection, 2020, scholarworks.waldenu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=9922&context=dissertations.