A Facebook conversation about rising suicide rates in Guyana turned into a cause for Annan Boodram and fellow members of the Bronx-based Caribbean Voice Inc.
“We knew we had to do something and it had to go beyond discussion. We had to act,” said Boodram, a native of Guyana and president of The Caribbean Voice.
The nonprofit organization, which is completely staffed by volunteers, was founded in 1998 as a media organization focusing on the cultural events and social issues of the Caribbean and its diaspora. However, the organization more recently has turned its attention to suicide prevention, specifically in Guyana. A report from the World Health Organization (WHO) released a year ago demonstrates the magnitude of the problem: It showed that Guyana has the highest suicide rate in the world at 44.2 per 100,000 people, twice the global average.
A few months before that WHO report, The Caribbean Voice launched Arise, a campaign dedicated to sharply reducing Guyana’s suicide rate over a five-year period, by raising awareness and addressing several of the underlying social and economic issues that experts say has led to such high rates. The campaign includes information dissemination, training seminars, rallies and interventions on the ground in Guyana as well as throughout the Caribbean diaspora in the United States.
While there is no one factor that can explain Guyana’s high suicide rate, mental health professionals who work with the organization have pointed to extreme poverty in rural areas, drug and alcohol abuse, sexual abuse, a lack of coping skills and ease of access to deadly substances like pesticides.
“A young man about 17 or 18 years old borrowed some money from his mom and he wasn’t working. He didn’t know how to pay back the money and he ended up committing suicide because of that,” said Boodram. “He couldn’t cope and saw it as his only way out of a stressful situation.”
While the suicide crisis in Guyana has gained worldwide attention, the organization was concerned that so few in the Caribbean diaspora are aware of the numbers; something it partially attributes to a reluctance to discuss suicide and mental health issues in general.
Boodram says these are taboo topics, not only in the Caribbean, but in the diaspora as well. “I have seen it happen even here in New York City, deaths from suicide and the only people who know that it’s suicide are close family members.”
Beyond that, he says, “they try to hide it.” The shame associated with the act is why many families never discuss the actual circumstances surrounding a death.
He also noted a range of misconceptions commonly held by many Guyanese. These include the idea that if someone wants to kill himself or herself nothing can be done, and that suicidal thoughts or forms of mental illness mean “somebody put something on you” and a spiritual healer must be sought out for help. “They would run to a Pandit or spiritual adviser, spend money, but nothing changes,” Boodram said.
Changing that mindset toward mental health as well as preventing suicides are the main reasons The Caribbean Voice started Arise. The idea that “suicide prevention is everybody’s business” is not just the campaign’s motto, but the change in attitude the group hopes their efforts will bring about.
Through use of several social media sites including Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram, the group has been able to reach thousands of people around the world. A person in need of counseling typically contacts the organization via social media or by phone and is then immediately put in touch with a trained counselor. These counselors are mental health professionals in the organization or trained professionals of other organizations collaborating with The Caribbean Voice. Boodram says that within the last eight months the organization has assisted in more than 75 suicide interventions that saved lives.
Last month, The Caribbean Voice held its first stakeholders conference in Guyana’s capital city of Georgetown. This one-day conference brought together government officials, religious leaders, members of the private sector and other nonprofit organizations to discuss suicide prevention. The conference also examined Guyana’s difficulties in dealing with suicide due to lack of resources.
“There is not much here in Guyana. It could be a counselor. It could be a trained medical professional, both are limited, very limited here in Guyana,” said Bibi Ahamad, managing director and Guyana coordinator of The Caribbean Voice.
These circumstances offer those who need help limited options, and according to both Boodram and Ahamad, have to some extent “normalized” suicide, making it just another option rather than what is typically a last resort.
“If we would have had these services readily available, Guyana would not have had this high suicide rate, that’s for sure,” Ahamad said. The organization is encouraged by the recent introduction of The Inter Agency Suicide Prevention Help Line in Guyana and an initiative to have trained counselors in every school, but knows there is still much work to be done.
The outreach being conducted on the ground in Guyana is also taking place here in New York City. The Caribbean Voice has co-hosted several seminars and workshops on risk factors that can lead to suicide, suicide prevention, and basic training on intervention strategies.
The group also began visits to mandirs (Hindu temples) to talk about suicide prevention, an initiative that members want to expand to churches and mosques throughout New York City. Plans for a suicide prevention forum, focusing on the youth in Queens, is underway for next year. The Caribbean Voice is also working on outreach initiatives in several cities across the United States and in Toronto, Canada.
“It starts with awareness and awareness leads to change of attitude and acquisition of knowledge. Those two together can bring about the action that can lead to resulting change,” Boodram said.
If you or someone you know is experiencing difficult or suicidal thoughts please call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or call 911 immediately.