Two weeks ago, 15-year-old Rehana Nandlal, of Barrackpore committed suicide. The next day, her apparent lover Hydar Mohammed did the same. They both drank weedicide. It is telling that the girl's suicide was big news solely because of her apparent sexual relationship with the 52-year-old security guard at her school in Barrackpore. It is also telling that the response from the public has focused solely on that relationship, and not on the suicides themselves. The tragedies have been treated with derision and disgust. Online, comments on the story read like rum-shop talk rather than a condolence book:
• "Disgusting that old goat. You better dead than alive, because sucker you would not make it in jail."
• "A swift death is no justice at all."
• "This is nasty...then took the easy way out. His family should never arrange a funeral."
Few would argue that the relationship was inappropriate...and illegal. But the issue is far bigger than that. And yet, like with our politics, the race talk and everything else, we get caught up in the scandal of it without seeing the real problems. We enjoy thinking that T&T is not a place for suicides. This is perhaps because we are ignorant of the facts. Or maybe we're just oblivious; after all, our alarmingly high homicide rate is obvious, and we still want tourists to come, want to raise our children here, want to continue to live like "normal."
• T&T ranks in the top 40 of the world's highest suicide rates by country (World Health Organisation, 2008.)
• It outranks countries afflicted by war, poverty and strife such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, India and Nicaragua. It also outranks the USA.
• Sixty-eight per cent of suicides in T&T are the result of ingesting agricultural poisons-more than China (International Journal of Epidemiology, 2003.)
• There was a 319 per cent increase in male suicide rates in T&T from 1978 to1992 (International Journal of Social Psychiatry, 1997.)
• Low population density, low income, East Indian ethnicity and alcohol consumption are significantly correlated to suicide in T&T (West Indian Medical Journal, 2003.)
• "Sixty to 75 per cent of suicides happen in a belt reaching from Sangre Grande to Caroni via districts like Rio Claro, Siparia and San Fernando" (T&T Guardian, 2003.)
• Every day, three or four people are admitted to the Port-of-Spain and San Fernando General hospitals for attempted suicide (T&T Guardian, 2003.)
• From 1991-2000, there were more suicides than murders (T&T Guardian, 2003.)
Little research, response
So suicides in T&T are not isolated or rare. And these statistics are only for those deaths that are actually reported as suicides. Family "shame," religion and other unimportant factors prevent accurate reporting of the real suicide epidemic in T&T. A graphical representation of suicide rates over time makes apparent the increase, especially the more than 300 per cent jump from the '70s to the '90s. Before murder in T&T became the everyday part of life that it is now, suicide claimed more lives. And yet, with such a crisis facing the country, the only response seems to have been understaffed units at hospitals, clinics that allow for a 15-minute treatment of depressed patients and a hotline advertised by small, inconspicuous black-and-white ads running sporadically in the newspaper.
An online search for "Trinidad suicide" reveals even less, showing how the lack of response or recognition of the high suicide rate comes from even the highest related offices in the land. Given the clear-cut trends on suicides in T&T-that it is mostly done by people of a certain gender (men), age (25 to 34), education status (low), ethnicity (East Indian) and location (rural Trinidad/"suicide belt") and that agricultural poisons are the killer of choice-shouldn't there have long been a bigger, better response?
Pesticides, like a plethora of other dangerous substances and drugs available only with a prescription everywhere else in the world, are available for everyone in T&T. In the USA, one must now show proof of age to buy even Nyquil at a Target store, given that teenagers began using it to get high. Rural areas are out of the scope of many social services like counselling and hospitals, despite the clear need for them there.
There is a dearth of research on the subject. The scattered studies one would find in an online search come almost exclusively from one man, Dr Gerard Hutchinson, who in 2003 was named as a senior lecturer and head of the Psychiatry Unit in the Department of Clinical Medical Sciences, UWI. And critical reporting on the issue came from just as few journalists. The one locally published article quoted above was written by Lisa Allen-Agostini. This lack of everything except the numbers of suicides, themselves, coupled with the disdain, disrespect and indifference from the public, has enabled not only the burgeoning suicide rate in T&T, but also the disrespect meted out to victims and their memories. Instead of the bacchanal and scandal and controversy to which we pay attention so acutely, here's a real issue that we can actually deal with.