There is a lake north of the Maseru CBD called Maqalika, near a place aptly named Lakeside. A serene and visually appealing spot that attracts couples for romantic picnics and quiet moments in a city otherwise deprived of options for recreation and privacy.
Lakeside is also the city’s source of water. But it is also an area known for death.
Suicides happen with such frequency at Lakeside that many have become apathetic to frequent news of death there. One could say these suicides have unfortunately become part of the identity of the place.
One such case is of a 17-year-old who took his girlfriend on what seemed a romantic walk to Lakeside to do the things lovers do in the nature’s solitude. At some point, he asked her to wait for him while he quickly went off somewhere. As she anticipated his return, the girl said she pacified her excitement with thoughts of what he might have planned, and what romantic gestures might ensue.
Death was never on her mind.
While people wondered in dismay at how such a sweet and unassuming teenager could have taken his own life, the truth many remain reluctant to address is that suicide is rife in Lesotho. And these suicides often involve young people across all classes. For individuals with an under-privileged or poor background, causes range from being overwhelmed with responsibilities that deprive them of their youth to frustrations with their general living conditions.
Middle to upper class victims generally include individuals who are often comfortable materially, but not emotionally and psychologically secure, due to unsavoury terms with their parents or mood disorders and mental health issues that go unattended. In 2011, Lesotho was ranked 26th in suicides globally, with an age adjusted death rate of 16 years per 100,000 people. Unfortunately, it is difficult to track adjustments in those figures to date as public records are mostly inputted manually.
Shutting out human contact
The patriarchal design of our society assumes that a child’s wellbeing is only maintained by meeting his/her basic needs. The command and obey nature of it often shuts out room for a hug, a kind word of encouragement or interest, and especially alienates freedom of expression in the home. Parents are quick to overlook destructive attention-seeking behaviour such as excessive drinking, crime or even isolation because they are unfamiliar with talking to their children explicitly about weakness. And male youth that do expose their vulnerability are ridiculed because it is interpreted as wimpish, whiny or pathetic according to perceived measures of strength and manliness. In the event that young people dare to speak up, they are subject to reprimand because they are expected to “know their place”.
When confronted by the reality of troubled youth, our society largely throws its hands up in defeat with the belief that even Jesus is out of options because zealous prayers appear to have no effect. Typically, society shifts all the blame to the troubled individual and ‘the devil’ because to actually acknowledge that it is failing its children is unheard of. The failure is ingrained in parents’ tendency to be preoccupied with keeping up appearances. They generally separate themselves from their children’s behaviours to create the impression that they are victims of the ways of today’s youth.
Our parents forget that in addition to our environment, we are products of the generation that birthed us. One teenager killed himself because he did not do well at school and opted to avoid the fury of his father’s reaction by eliminating himself from existence altogether. Another took her own life because following a dispute at school, her side of the story was ignored by her parents and teachers alike.
Looking beyond the obvious signs
There are, however, a number of variables that influence a person’s decision to take their own life that may not have a direct link to domestic relations. Psychology Today cites mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, accidental death from games, impulsiveness, philosophical desire and the most common; depression. Depression remains taboo because victims are prone to self-shaming while the world takes lightly their suffering and stigmatises them as ‘freaks’ or desperate attention-seekers.
Youth sometimes become consumed with thoughts that perhaps the world would be better off without them because they feel like their existence is a nuisance, or that they are not good enough because they have been rejected by someone whose opinion they value. While some may cry out for help, others become consumed by their feelings of worthlessness.
All too often, we take people’s pain for granted instead of introducing solutions that can help them cope with issues better. Regardless of how trivial our suggestions may sound (if that girl is fascinated by ants, at least buy books to support the interest!), it is important to encourage and nurture different passions. Insist that the person voice their anxieties and feelings to a trusted friend or elder. At best, encourage them to seek professional help. Exhaust every possible option you have to be supportive, caring and kind.
It’s troubling to me that adults still assume the self-righteous approach in dealing with these matters without learning from past victims. The very people who could offer guidance and be a source of wisdom are instead the ones young people often feel least comfortable to confide in.
The Lakeside teenager surely did find some level of solace in his girlfriend and enjoyed spending time with her, but this was not enough to fill the void of his troubled mind.
We need to do more, listen more, and be more.