SUICIDE AND THE NIGERIAN PRESS – A review of the book ‘The Morning After’
By Femi Olugbile
One of the significant cultural and educational events of the past few days has been the release of a book titled ‘The Morning After’. It is jointly published by a psychiatrist, Olufemi Oluwatayo, and a journalist, Martins Ifijeh.
It is a slim volume of 138 pages, but it packs a powerful punch. Oluwatayo is a Fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists who was trained at the University of Ibadan. He is the Medical Director of Lakeside Hospital, Wyboston, Bedfordshire, in the United Kingdom, as well as the CEO of The Retreat, a mental health facility located at Ewutu on the outskirts of Ikorodu, Lagos State.
Martins Ifijeh is well known in media circles in Nigeria as the Health Correspondent and head of the Health beat at THISDAY newspapers.
The focus of the book is the issue of Suicide. It is a matter that has received much attention in the Nigerian press in the recent past. The message is clear – there is an urgent need to change the narrative, both on media reporting and prevention.
Suicide, or ‘Deliberate Self-Harm’, leading to Death, is a public health problem that occupies that attention of Health experts and society at large all over the world. It is said that 800,000 suicides take place every year. One person somewhere in the world is committing suicide every forty seconds.
The complexity of the issues involved is obvious even from the nuances of description identified by the authors and the efforts to find language that is not pejorative or stigmatizing. Saying a person ‘Commits’ Suicide gives the impression that a crime has taken place. This is even reflected in the provision of the anachronistic penal code that is operational in Nigeria. In reality what happens when person kill themselves is a Public Health problem that should be covered by the Health desk of a newspaper, and not the Crime desk, as the authors aver. And the ‘-cide’ in the word ‘Suicide’ itself reeks of high crime, like ‘homicide’ or ‘infanticide’. Many people ‘attempt’ suicide and survive to tell the story. In fact, twenty times as many people ‘attempt’ suicide as those who actually die of it.
The distinction between a ‘serious’ suicide attempt and a ‘cry for help or attention’ can be very difficult. A chap named Norman Kreitman, with whom this reviewer once worked in Edinburgh, tried to resolve the confusion by coining the term ‘Parasuicide’ to describe the common fad among young girls in Edinburgh and elsewhere in Europe of inflicting mostly superficial slashes on their wrists or demonstratively taking an overdose of analgesic or sedative. The clarification further worsened the confusion, unfortunately, since some of the apparently trivial ‘cry for help’ cases ended up dying, and any judgement about ‘real’ intention in a person who is already dead could only be conjectural.
Suicide was frowned upon in traditional African culture, and it carries a ‘shame’ element even now. On the other hand, newspapers which publish stories about citizens who ‘successfully’ commit Suicide, as if it was a competition at which they won the prize, seem to be inviting others, especially the young and impressionable, to copy the ‘success’.
What the authors would like is a more humane law, a better prevention and support strategy for the vulnerable, and a nuanced, enlightened manner of reporting the subject by the Nigerian press. In the era of Social Media, news is put out in an eye-catching manner, garnished with graphic photographs and gossip about the victim’s life and the cause of the his action, with an eye on ‘going viral’.
The mainstream press in Nigeria, in the eyes of Oluwatayo and Ifijeh, are equally guilty of sensationalism, insensitivity and lack of professionalism in their coverage. Often the report of a suicide is front page news, sometimes with accompanying pictures and speculation. The family is left to try to live down the hurt of negative publicity, a process that may take several years, or never happen.
The writers cite the experience of Vienna, Austria. At a time, there was a high rate of suicide incidents on the Vienna underground, each attracting frontpage coverage in newspapers. Then the Press adopted a new reporting style whereby incidents were now reported on the inside pages, in small factual sections devoid of pictures or excessive detail. The result was that the incidence of Suicide on the Vienna underground went down drastically.
The writers want the Nigerian press to realise they have a responsibility to tamp down the pain and vicarious suffering caused by Suicide by signing up to a set of reporting guidelines that takes out such sensational descriptions as ‘suicide hotspots’ and leaves out speculative personal details, including the contents of suicide notes.
Some of the ‘asks’ may be rather tall, such as suggesting the public not use the phrase ‘commit suicide’. But the point about the need for empathy and professional restraint is well made and cannot be overstated.
All in all, ‘The Morning After’ is a labour of love by two professionals who care deeply about the emotional well-being of Nigerian people and are keen to teach others to do so, even in the most challenging circumstances. It is hoped the message will travel far and kick-start a conversation that will result in positive change.
The Morning After is published in Nigeria by Narrative Landscape Press under its PRIMA Imprint. It is available in bookshops.
A TRIBUTE TO DR IDOWU MALOMO
The sad news was received a few days ago of the death of Dr Idowu Malomo, Consultant Psychiatrist, a former Medical Director of Federal Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital, Yaba and a senior member of the Mental Health Community in Nigeria. He was a man of great knowledge and deep compassion, whose presence will be sadly missed by family and friends, and the countless patients on whose lives he has left a permanent positive imprint. May his soul rest in perfect peace.