I just watched with trepidation each unfolding minute of the gory BBC documentary on suicide in Nyandarua County, Kenya. This journalistic master stroke served as dessert to the plateful of rancour that has been the mental health news dominating our airwaves and blogosphere for the past months.
As I write, I am still reminded of the university student who was arrested as he tried to gain access to Statehouse, Nairobi. There is information that he suffers from mental illness.
Back to the BBC documentary. Tears freely flow from a wife widowed, a son orphaned, a brother left in pain. One of the relatives aptly describes it as ‘the saddest day of my life’.
The Rising Tide
As statistics show a rising number of suicide cases, attempted suicide is the missing side of the coin. One of the victims, according to the documentary, is reported to have attempted suicide multiple times before finally landing the effective method to take his life.
Months before the BBC documentary, in a village not far from the setting of the film, a 10-year-old boy shocked his village.
He had been well. He would mingle with the younger cousins and step brothers and sisters. They would easily play together. He would easily help them out, being the more able and knowledgeable.
Set Himself Ablaze
Then one day, out of the blues, a moment of bliss turned brisk. It was time for the game at the compound. But what transpired was not a game. All the other children watched, scared and terrified, with little knowledge of what to do. The boy, as the story goes, arrived at the playground with some kerosene in a jerrycan.
They must have thought it was water, not a highly flammable liquid. Then the pungent smell proved them wrong.
They may have thought he was pulling a stunt when he poured all that fuel onto himself.
For an ephemeral moment when the world seemed to stand still, they stood still, stiff and shocked; speechless and motionless. Everyone held their breath.
With a single stroke of the match stick he set himself ablaze!
The little ones finally found the voice to burst into screams as he burst into flames. They scampered to the house as the flames scathed his clothes and scorched his skin.
Luckily, there were adults in the house. The boy was saved. He was rushed to hospital, having suffered major burns.
I only came into contact with him during follow up for the burn wounds. He has developed stiffness in his joints from the injuries.
When you look at him and listen to the story, you are left with countless questions. The most pressing- why?
Why should a ten year old attempt suicide?
Why, when he has a very supportive single mother?
Is it because of the absence of a father?
How possible when he has never had that conversation with his mother?
Why arrive at this drastic action when previously there were no tell tale signs?
All these are the subject of explorative psychosocial counselling sessions with the relevant colleagues.
I was in denial that this was a mental health problem. Until a scan of his brain came back normal. Adding to the list of other previously normal tests.
He shall need rehabilitating his joints back to work, and facilitating the healing of the wounds surgically if need be.
But there is more that needs to be done. I am happy steps have begun and are bearing early fruits from a psychosocial perspective.
As we decry the rise in the number of suicides and homicides, it is time to encourage documentation of attempted suicides. Attempted suicide is a cry for help. It gives the society a second chance to save the patient’s life. Up to 1 in 10 people commit successful suicide after a first unsuccessful attempt.
The scars in this boy will remind his playmates and siblings of a scary scene. They will remind him of a dark hour in his life, which I hope he walks away from, forever.
As a surgeon, I may not have much to do other than hope that the burn scars suffered so early in life do not turn into cancerous wounds decades down the line.
Yet the biggest lesson from this young boy’s scars to us as a people should be a heightened conscience on how not only the present but future generations are at brisk risk from mental health.
As Prof Makau Mutua writes, it is time to have that national conversation.