Let suicide prevention measures include people with disabilities

Every suicide begins with a thought and an attempt.

What you need to know:

  • More than 700,000 people die of suicide annually, according to the World Health Organization.
  • Not all suicide deaths are reported due to fear of stigma and misreporting.

Every September, the world commemorates the suicide prevention awareness month in a bid to curb stigma surrounding the topic and, hopefully, reduce the number of suicides and suicide attempts. While yearly commemorations usually run the risk of being viewed as routine, this is specifically personal to me and many other persons with disabilities (PWDs).

In 2007, a road crash damaged my spinal cord and rendered me a wheelchair user. I initially refused to integrate this harsh reality into my psyche. I was living in denial. All I wanted was to walk again. Denial can be a powerful ally; it can help you to block off the painful reality that you are not ready to confront. In this sense, it becomes a friend. But what happens when the reality you struggle to deny won’t go away? This is where denial causes problems like suicidal thoughts.

Explaining the burdens of the presidency and the stresses of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln said: “I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go.” No other statement could have perfectly explained my experience. I lived in that state of denial for more than two years despite the full support of my family. I felt all alone, and that none of them could have understood my deep and unshakable sense of hopelessness.

I then started wishing to die, crafting a plan of convincing my family that I’d get well faster if I stayed at home in the rural corners of Mandera. With no specialised health facility nearby, I knew that any health complications would quicken this dark wish. Despite my emotional turmoil, I understood though that my Islamic faith did not allow such thoughts.

My case is not isolated. A University of Kentucky study, “Understanding suicide and disability”, shows that the prevalence of suicide among PWDs is second-highest in those with spinal-cord injuries, only behind multiple sclerosis. More than 700,000 people die of suicide annually, according to the World Health Organization. Every suicide begins with a thought and an attempt. Three in four of these deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, which Kenya falls under.

But not all suicide deaths are reported due to fear of stigma and misreporting. Should I have succeeded, it would have largely been attributed to health complications since my thoughts were private. To many, such thoughts and attempts are done outside the public view because it’s a crime to attempt suicide. Some argue for the repeal of Section 226 of the Penal Code, terming it as draconian for it victimises those needing help.

Mental health issues

In July, the Directorate of Criminal Investigations raised an alarm after recording 483 suicide cases in three months — even higher than yearly cases in over a decade. Data from the “Economic Surveys” done by Kenya National Bureau of Statistics spanning back to 2004 presents an interesting observation: The most reported suicide cases occurred in 2007, 2013 and 2017, which were election years. That could shape interventions to prevent a repeat of the trend come next year.

The good news is that the society and government have started giving issues of mental health high priority, with President Uhuru Kenyatta and First Lady Margaret Kenyatta spearheading the call for interventions to curb the rapidly growing cases.

Many studies show the relationship between mental health issues and suicide, especially depression. But, importantly, many cases are spontaneous during serious personal crises and tragedies. The Covid-19 pandemic period has, unfortunately, provided these ingredients by suppressing livelihoods, causing the death of loved ones, loneliness and hopelessness.

A study in England published in the European Journal of Disability Research, “The influence of disability on suicidal behaviour”, shows PWDs, particularly the unemployed, economically inactive and those with physical health problems, are four times more likely to attempt suicide than the non-disabled.

This year’s theme is “Creating Hope through Action”. It is important to be watchful lest PWDs are left behind once more. Even as we create suicide prevention interventions, let there be a specific approach for PWDs. By taking a human rights view towards universal access to mental health services, we can eliminate barriers that hold back PWDs from getting this life-saving assistance.

Mr Hassan is the chief executive officer of the National Council for Persons with Disabilities (NCPWD). [email protected]; [email protected]


You're all set to enjoy unlimited Prime content.