Sunday, October 6, 2013

Life in Totality

Published in the Fiji Times' "Off the Wall with Padre James" 7 August, 2013

I recently came across a research report titled, “Preventing Suicide Through Christian Education.” The report was commissioned by the South Pacific Association for Theological Schools (SPATS) and its WEAVERS (Women Doing Theology) programme and prepared by Akanisi Tarabe. The report was prepared as part of the development of a curriculum “Life Worth Living,” that addresses suicide prevention through Christian education, for use in theological colleges that belong to SPATS.

According to the report, the Pacific region has one of the highest youth suicide rates in the world, with young male suicide in the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, Samoa, Marshall Islands, Guam and among Fiji Indians rated among the highest anywhere in the world. This this is also true for young females between the ages of 15-24 years in Samoa and among Indo-Fijians.

Fiji Police statistics show that of those that completed suicide in Fiji in 2011, 60% were Fiji Indians in comparison to 38% of indigenous Fijians. 92% of these deaths occurred by hanging. Last year Fiji's suicide numbers are up almost 200 percent this year, with 105 people taking their lives compared to 36 for the year before.  There were 125 attempted suicides in 2012 compared to 96 for 2011.

The report states that in Fiji, suicide causes more deaths annually than road accidents and it is speculated in the area of suicide prevention in Fiji, that some fatal road accidents are actually suicide
deaths and some drowning incidents maybe suicide deaths especially if the victim is a
known competent swimmer.

 What is more alarming is the devastating effect suicide leaves behind on relatives and friends. The economics of suicide is high because suicide affects everyone, family, friends, church members, work mates, the government, in fact, everyone in the society in different ways. The financial burden, the emotional impact, the shame or stigma attached, the rituals that surround a suicide death, indicate that the cost of suicide is not only financial, but social, psychological and spiritual as well.

The report asked how could a society that places high value on life through the church and its culture be wrought with high incidence of suicide? How can the church deal with suicide and prevent it from happening?

In the Pacific, the break in traditional societies has been attributed to the rise in suicide rates through the rapid shift from communal societies to cash based societies. This rapid shift in societies leads to changes in traditional roles for both young men and women.

Suicide is caused by many problems and one of them is communication. Many respondents felt
that those who commit suicide ‘kept everything inside’ and could not tell another person how
he/she was feeling about himself/herself and the situation he/she was in. Others mentioned that
someone got so angry that he/she walked out and got a rope and killed himself/herself or had an
overdose of medicine.

Studies show that the cause for many suicide deaths in the Pacific is interpersonal in nature triggered by some conflict between the victim and parents or between victim and spouse or girlfriend and boyfriend. This was supported by the views expressed by those interviewed for the research paper. In some cases, it is has been disagreement on very trivial cases such as parents’
refusal to buy a new shirt for their son. In these cases the dominant emotion is anger that stems out from the inability to communicate the feeling of jealousy and so forth.

The report questions how one learns to communicate when communication avenues are no longer available and there is eruption of emotions in anger? Describing communication as a two way process, Tarabe states that when one or the other does not function well, there is miscommunication. Relationships bloom when communication is maintained and the message is understood well by the two parties. Without this there is strain in relationship.

Tarabe writes, “The father of two little boys who committed suicide because his sister became pregnant will never know the pain his mother had to bear after he was gone. The pastor who hung himself from the ceiling because his wife had brought shame to his ministry by committing adultery was found just in time by his brother who rushed him to the hospital and saved him. The teenager who stood by and watched his cousin’s body being hastily buried without the traditional funeral rituals cried silently in his heart because his family was ashamed both of the way he had lived as
a drunkard and the way he had died as a victim of suicide. Is the feeling of shame more powerful than life?”

For the many Christians in Fiji and the Pacific, if life is in Jesus, then why do we allow shame to be dominant over us?

As parents and guardians and elders, how can we condone a saying such as ‘it is better to die than to face shame’ if we believe in life?

The sense of achievement at all costs leads to the belief that with failure it is better to die than to be ashamed. High expectations that the young person will come back home with academic degrees, the high honour placed on the girl who must remain a virgin until she marries puts pressure on young people who struggle with new sets of behaviour in new environments that are very different from the time their own parents were growing up.

So what does this mean for young people? For many people it is a double shame, the shame of failure to meet the high expectation and the shame of the act of suicide for those left behind at the aftermath of suicide. The result is isolation of the relatives through stigmatization. Isolation is not  only the result of suicide, it can also be what drives one to commit suicide.

The sound of regret that one walked closely with the suicide victim and did not know that he/she
was going to commit suicide is a heart wrenching sound.” According to Tarabe, many respondents knew at least one person who had committed suicide. “The victims were either a friend, a family member, a member of the parish or youth group, a class mate or a team member, a church leader or
someone personally known to the respondent. There were other cases where the person showed
signs but the person he shared his/her problems with did not know what to do or who to turn to.”

On the other hand, those who interpreted the quietness or withdrawn-ness of the victim as a good boy or good girl did not realize that this ‘silent situation’ was actually the beginning of depression and suicidal thoughts to set in. The culture of silence in the Pacific has been mentioned before as a positive behaviour for it shows respect and proper behaviour so it becomes a shock when a good boy or girl suddenly commits suicide. As one of the informants says about a devoted youth leader who committed suicide, “I was surprised because he was an active member of the church and I was thinking that a person as such could have easily found other ways to solve his problem.’ Why couldn’t the person find the ‘other ways?” This is a question we must ask and seek answers for.

Because it is good to be silent, a person who suddenly withdraws and isolates himself/herself can
be easily overlooked. The practitioner therefore must be sensitive to the goodness of silence at
the same time be aware of the sudden quietness and continued isolation of a person as an alarm
that something maybe going wrong in the person.

The report shows that theological students and faculty members are keenly aware of the magnitude of the problem of suicide in the Pacific through their own experiences with family or church members and for some through their own attempts at suicide when problems became impossible to handle. The other side of the picture shows the lack of resources and understanding within ministry to deal with suicide prevention or with those who are left behind after suicide. In particular the respondents have shown that the church needs to be more vigilant and more practical in its support for suicide prevention.

Churches and other Faith-based organisations make up the biggest civil society or non-governmental organisations in Fiji. The important role that the faith communities have in the lives of people in the Pacific, place church ministers, priests, imams and other religious teachers at the frontline of ‘first assistance’ given when people are in crisis. This makes them key players of intervention in suicidal situations. However, people cannot always tell when someone is going to commit suicide but the note of regret after a suicide has taken place makes learning about the prevention of suicide a necessary element in pastoral care.

Prepared from the Christian perspective, the report reflects that the Christian church emphasizes that life belongs to God and therefore no one has any right to take his/her own life away. From this perspective suicide is sin. If this is so, then many Pacific people have gone or are going into eternal condemnation considering the increasing rate of suicide. The challenge lies in ministry if the key role of church ministers is to save lives. Therefore, a concerted effort must be taken so that every minister is equipped with the basic skills and knowledge to prevent suicide.

In our multi-religious society, the challenge is for all faith leaders and leaders at all levels of society to be equipped and be part of community-based suicide prevention initiatives.

Apart from much needed training, partnership with organisations such as Lifeline need to be fostered.

Lifeline’s message (via facebook) is “If you are feeling: alone,unloved uncertain about issues, that expectations are too high for you, blamed or scapegoated, most adults around you dont unrstanderstand you, or you feel that life is not worth are not alone....Lifeline fiji is ready to listen and understand you just as you us ...we will walk with you”  (Ba:  667 0565;  Suva: 3630400

Life is precious and to be lived in totality. Each one of us, but especially those in community leadership need to be prepared to ensure that all, especially the vulnerable are able to live a life to the full.

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”

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