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In recent times, mental health issues have come to the fore. Many people are speaking about it and encouraging victims to seek help before it festers. AllNews’ Ridwan Yusuf looks at people who got to the brink but were miraculously brought back, highlighting the roles of close associates and the general public in helping sufferers recover.
In the solitude of her room, deadly drugs in her possession, a glass of water to wash down, and suicide note completed, Victoria Ofila, a 22-year-old Nigerian tertiary institution student was ready to take her own life.
However, two sentences she heard turned the situation around. The young lady now knows for sure that 'suicide is not an option'.
“I wrote a suicide note,” Ofila recounts. “And everyday, I would read it to myself. I got pills that I was going to use to ‘end it’.”
Ofila read the note everyday, building momentum to ‘end it’ all while making adjustments to it.
“I wanted to be perfect,'' she continues. “And then one day, on the day I felt ‘this was the day I was going to do it’, I was in the house - my family home. I locked myself up in the room.”
She was prepared to end it all. Reading the note for the last time, pills and water set for what would have been the last moment alive, her mother walked past the locked door -- oblivious of what was about to happen behind it -- lamenting.
“I heard her saying, she was tired,” Ofila recalls. And those words hit home.
“The way I heard it: “God, I’m so tired of everything”. At that point, I was crying because I realised that I was being selfish. I wasn’t the only one going through stuff. I felt she was just reaching out to me. But she doesn’t even know I have plans to commit suicide,” Ofila explains.
“But when I heard what she said, and the emotion with which she said it, I cried so hard. I cried so much that I couldn’t even breathe properly."
Suicide is now a serious public health problem as it has become widespread among people, old and young. Globally, 79 percent of suicides occur in low- and middle-income countries. On the average, every 40 seconds, one person dies from suicide. If Ofila had gone through with the plan, she would have been among about 800,000 people whose deaths are recorded every year worldwide from suicide, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Thankfully she is only among the 20 unsucessful suicide attempts for each of the self-murder statistics record.
According to World Population Review, death rate from suicide per 100,000 people in Nigeria in 2021 is 3.5 (male rate, 5; female rate 1.9). But in Nigeria, suicide incidents are usually underreported. On one hand because of the stigma associated with it. And on the other hand, because it is a crime to attempt suicide - a fact many citizens are unaware of. Suicide attempters in the country risk a one-year jail term, even though punitive prescription is rarely followed through. Notwithstanding the consequences, the media reported that 264 deaths by suicide occured in the country between 2017 to 2020.
Momentarily deterred by her mother’s coincidental lamentation, Ofila escaped death and punishment and sought help further. In profuse tears, she picked up her phone and reached out to a friend.
“I kept crying, and he didn’t say anything. I just kept crying, and he just kept listening to me," Ofila says as tears welled up in her eyes again.
“Thereafter, he said these words to me, and they stuck to me: ‘You’re allowed to be weak; it's okay to be weak’,” the 22-year-old recounts, stifling tears out of her voice.
“That was all he said to me. That's what I needed to hear at that point. That was like my weakest point ever, and he told me that it was perfectly fine to be weak sometimes.
“After crying, he just told me that I could be weak as long as I wanted to. I could decide to quit everything, and that was totally fine. So, I felt like ‘this was what I needed to hear’."
Ofila concluded that talking to one's loved ones can do the magic as is true in her case. She also holds that severing ties with things that may trigger suicidal thoughts is a pragmatic way to go.
“I took the note and burnt it because I realised that I can be weak, without attempting suicide. I realised that I’m human, and everyone tends to have a low moment,” Ofila says with a smile returning to the corner of her mouth.
She emphasised the importance of the help from others, saying a listening ear goes a long way in helping persons with suicidal thoughts.
"He listened to me talk about everything I was going through. He didn’t try to advise me, or anything. He just kept listening to me.
“Whenever I was talking about stuff, I would burst into tears, and he would tell me it is OK not to be the strong person everybody expects you to be.
“So, I felt like he was just being real with me at that point - exactly what I needed at the time.
“Burning my suicide note was emotional for me because I was telling myself, ‘even if I was weak right now, I know that I can do this’.
“That was a life-changing moment."
Ofila herself had been a counsellor of some sort. In 2019, her mental health issues led her to forming a support group for folks with thoughts like hers.
"There was a time, in 2019, when I posted (on social media that) I had a rough day, and a total stranger came through for me. She listened to me, and she prayed with me after that," Ofila explains.
“I felt really relieved talking to somebody about everything I was going through - a total stranger.
“So I wanted to be like that for other people. I posted my phone number on Twitter and said I was available for conversations. 'If you are going through a rough patch, and you needed someone to talk to, I was available'. So, a lot of people called me, a lot of times,” Ofila explains.
People would randomly call her and talk to her about issues they were going through. She offered listening ears.
“In March, I had like five, six people I was talking to regularly that were also going through depression,” Ofila says, noting that she only removed the offer to listen from her pinned post in April 2021.
With the benefit of hindsight, Ofila thinks there is a limit to which a non professional can help another when it comes to mental health. This is because the weight may be crushing when the lines from other people’s stories begin to merge with those of the helpers and it all blends together.
“I got to a point where I couldn’t differentiate 'this was my own story, and this is someone else’s story', '' she recalls. “The people that were talking to me, their story started merging with mine. I started to feel what they were feeling.”
In Ofila’s support group, there were people who had slipped into depression because they were trying to break addictions unsuccessfully, there were others who were self harming and the pain and guilt of the individuals haunted Ofila as the lines between the helper and the helped blurred out.
Some of the members of the support group eventually surmounted their challenges while others are still struggling with theirs. The person who was self-harming had a clean month in April.
“I didn’t know when to stop. I didn’t know when to get a clean break from them,” she said. “I was feeling what they were feeling, and somehow, I started to mix my life with theirs.”
According to Ofila, it was not her first time dealing with depression. In December 2020, she had a rough patch.
She contacted a therapist who did a fine job. But that did not totally have a telling effect on her. "I felt like I was healing because I was also on drugs; on antidepressants, but I was not, in actual fact," Ofila says frankly.
She adds: "Then, in early April , I started getting depressed again.
"I tried reaching out to people. But everybody, you know, the situation right now in Nigeria is very crazy. So everybody was like they also had one mess or the other that they were also going through.
"So the person you are expecting to be there for you is also going through trauma. And they cannot also be there for any other person. That is totally okay. It is okay to be selfish at times.
"At that point, I needed somebody, but there was nobody available to talk to.
"Aside from that, I had very low self-esteem, I was going through a patch where I felt I was less than enough because I wasn't as productive as I wanted to be. And it was projecting in every sphere of my life - work, school, relationships.
"It was really tough."
Ofila said she erroneously believed she could solve her problem independently, so she "pushed everybody away".
Mental health challenges are complicated but they don't usually appear suddenly. The issues trickle down little by little and if the signs go unnoticed, it becomes a ticking bomb, waiting to be triggered.
“In May , I had a breakdown. Someone I really look up to said some words that just triggered me. That was actually my trigger. It was already building up from March," she says, highlighting the role of severe criticism in depression.
Apart from external comments, economic challenges and business demands are also key factors in Ofila’s breakdown as is with many others.
“My business was collapsing; I had to quit like four different hustles that I was doing. Money wasn’t coming in as much as it used to,” she narrates. “I was feeling like a failure. I felt like I wasn’t doing enough. It affected my self-esteem too.”
She was already down when she received severe criticism from a person she looked up to and that was the last straw.
“The person said I was disappointing. And it really hurt me,” Ofila says, wincing at the memory.
“I was doing my best, but I felt like nobody was seeing me. I felt like a ghost. Night after night, I cry myself to sleep and pretend to be happy.”
To mask the thickening blanket of extreme sadness, the 22-year-old would post funny stuff on social media just to appear happy.
“I really wanted to be that happy person that everybody thought I was. Whenever I was alone, I realised I was just faking it,” she says, adding how she gradually lost interest in everything she used to enjoy.
“I stopped reading, I stopped doing everything I used to do that I enjoyed doing because I felt like 'what’s the point of doing all these when in the end, I’m just going to be like a disappointment to this person that I really look up to?”
Recalling how tough the weeks were for her, she revealed that none of her friends noticed she was going through anything.
“I was like, ‘why can’t you guys realise I’m in pain?’ Why does it feel like I’m screaming out to people and nobody can hear me.
“I needed somebody to be what I was to other people. I felt like none of my friends could see that.
“I would come home, and nobody could see that Veekey is actually going through a tough time right now. I felt alone.
“When I started thinking suicide was for, one, it would end the feeling of loneliness, for two, it was me crying out for attention. I felt like if I attempted to kill myself, people would realise that ‘okay, this girl is going through something, and she needs help’.
“It was basically more a plea for help, than anything.
“I felt like if I committed suicide, someone would notice me and get someone to deter me, or I should just end the emptiness.
“Feeling empty is very crazy because you are like a blank space.”
She may not be a hundred percent yet, but Ofila is healing. She says she is working on herself.
“I read books that fill in the blank spaces. I try to surround myself with healthy conversations. I’m basically trying to get back on track. I’m taking it one step at a time,” Ofila tells Ridwan.
“My friend is also there. So, whenever I have a blank moment, I just call him. He is always there for me. It's not been easy though; I’m not going to lie.”
Ofila stressed that she shared her story in case someone needs to hear or know that they are not alone.
According to US-based non-profit organization for the awareness and prevention of youth suicide, The Jason Foundation, four out of five teens who attempt suicide give clear warning signs. The problem is, the signs may go unnoticed or they may not show at all. Feranmi Fasunle, a 200-level Political Science student of Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba Akoko (AAUA) falls into this category. Her signs either did not show or the signs just went unnoticed. She went all the way.
The late Feranmi Fasunle
She took her own life on May 13, leaving many shocked, considering her public persona.
Akinrinola Abimbola, a friend of the late Feranmi who was part of the earliest witnesses described her as kind, devout and oft-cheerful.
Aged 19, Feranmi -- daughter of Professor Adeolu Akande, the chairman of the Nigerian Communication Commission (NCC) -- left no note and showed no sign of frustration or depression.
But can a “lively” person be secretly depressed to the point of commiting suicide? It is “very possible”, Counselling Psychologist, Omotola Akinwale answers. “There is something called a psychological mask. People hide behind being lively; being happy.”
Referring to popular personalities like Brody Stevens and Robin Williams -- who despite being successful comedian’s took their own life -- Akinwale said no one is really exempted.
“They could even be comedians, making people happy and funny on their own side. But then, there is something going on, on the inside that they are masking up.”
Tell-tale signs from people secretly crying for help include, cryptic posts, posts that talk about life and death, or trying to say keeping hope alive.
“Sometimes, if people don’t dig deep, they would not know what exactly the person is thinking of,” the mental health expert explains.
“Another one is constant depression, bipolar disorder. Depression comes with a lot of things, loss of appetite, loss of interest in things they love to do and distorted appearances. Then you could have forgetfulness. On their physical body, you could have a lot of headaches.”
For individuals who may toe this line, Akinwale advised friends and family to show they truly care and offer valid hope.
“Genuinely care for the person, get to understand why they are thinking that way, and don’t make them feel like they are not the only ones having problems,” she says.
“The kind of statements like: ‘You are not the only one, if you hear my own problem, you would know that it is far worse than your own’, should not be uttered.
The person’s problem might actually look minute compared to another person’s own. But to that person, at that moment, that's like the huge thing, like the biggest thing they are trying to surmount. So experts maintain that the best way to go is to give them hope, encourage them, make them see reasons why it can be better, open them to stories of people who have gone through their kind of situation, that they can relate with. Send them happy notes as well.
“Don’t overcrowd their space, but be around them and let them know that you genuinely care,” Akinwale adds. "Sometimes, when they have at least just one person who genuinely cares about them, they can have a rethink.”
Feranmi did not get help, but Ayomide Adeagbo got help from a crowd, albeit virtually.
On May 22, Ayomide, a drone pilot based in Nigeria’s South-West region, unexpectedly announced his imminent death via the microblogging site, Twitter.
People were surprised as he had tweeted 14 hours earlier and gave no hint.
“Today is my last day on earth. I guess it's good to say goodbye to planet earth,” he had written in the now-deleted tweets.
“Twitter has been a wonderful community to me but I guess I am not for this planet earth.
“Thank [sic] to God. Thanks to my parents.
“But I am going back to my creator, can’t [sic] survive this.
“Death is better.”
A damaged loaned drone was later revealed to be the cause of his decision. Adeagbo was helped out of the difficult situation in a matter of hours.
He subsequently revealed that he was overwhelmed and wasn't thinking straight any more.
“I was scared, so scared to the extent of wanting to take my own life, something that I can't give,” he says, adding that what followed his death announcement on Twitter was nothing short of a miracle.
“The owner of the drone was the most lenient, he understood the moment I explained and provided the flight details to him and has made other arrangements for the job to be done regardless of this delay,” he recalls.
“I am literally short of words on how to appreciate everyone, the calls, texts, follow-ups, show-ups, generous requests to raise funds (funds I gratefully do not need as it's all sorted already, massive thanks to you all!) from loved ones and even people I do not know here.
“What I can say at this time is ‘May God bless you all immensely and bring help to you at every point of your lives’.
“I do not take this love for granted, Thank you all again!” his tweets read.
Akinwale the mental health expert cautioned against being insensitive when a person gives a distress signal online such as in Adeagbo’s case.
“Don’t just talk rashly at the person. Keeping quiet is even better than to say something insensitive to another person’s emotions,” she says.
The case of Betty Irabor, a Nigerian publisher and wife of broadcaster, Soni Irabo and her battle with depression and her attempted suicide was revealed in 2019. Her story underlines the importance of close associates in curbing suicide. But for the timely intervention of her husband, she would have been dead.
“I attempted suicide, if not for the timely intervention of my husband who rushed me to the hospital,” Mrs Irabor disclosed at an event she attended in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, South-South Nigeria.
Irabor stated that she was placed under suicide watch, subsequently.
“I was afraid of everything, I was afraid of success, I was afraid of failure. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat," she said at the event.
“I met a psychiatrist who overdosed me and didn’t even have the decency to acknowledge his mistake.
“Depression at a point gave me a kind of security, it secluded me, it protected me in a way that I had a reason to be unhappy.”
People, who were unaware of what she was going through at that time, explained the sudden change in her physique away, claiming was dieting.
“I looked so thin and emaciated,” she told the audience.
“After a while, I came to a point where I wanted this volcano to stop erupting, I wanted to be well.
“I also realised one thing, the reason I wasn’t sleeping was not only because I had chronic insomnia, but I was so busy thinking about not sleeping. The idea of me not sleeping engulfed me. By this time, I had stopped going to church or praying.”
Irabor stated that to defeat depression, she ‘started to recount her achievements’.
“I came to a realisation that my getting better was not in anybody’s hands, not even my psychiatrist. So, I stopped paying homage to the situation I was in, I stopped celebrating depression. I started talking to the negative voices in my head by recounting my achievements. I got better but relapsed when I lost my brother. After a year, I was gradually able to get myself together again.”
Suicide imagination can occur when a person feels that they are no longer able to cope with an overwhelming situation. Thus, emotional issues can drive one to think about suicide. And that was the case with Ogechi Obidiebube (Oge Obi), member of the BBC team that made the #sexforgrade BBC African Eye documentary. She was 25 at the time.
The #SexForGrade documentary is a 2019 production of the BBC Africa Eye which received wide acclaim.
The documentary chronicled how lecturers target the most vulnerable female students – those struggling with studies, seeking admission or in search of mentors – to have sex with them.
Through the use of secret cameras, undercover reporters of the BBC Africa Eye team captured the dialogues of four predatory lecturers from the University of Lagos (UNILAG) and the University of Ghana, as they attempted to cajole and manipulate the undercover journalists into engaging in sexual acts with them.
Rather than mention her name in the section of the closing credits, a pseudonym, “Kemi Alabi”, was credited.
On December 13, 2020, there was anxiety on Twitter over Obi’s suicide attempt.
Obi's action is believed to be due to perceived lack of accolades for her role in the groundbreaking report #SexForGrades work.
Obi was said to have consumed a deadly chemical component.
Via her known Twitter handle, she had insinuated that she was going to commit suicide, posting a video and crying profusely. Luckily, she was saved.
Obi's case brings to the front burner the role of employers and corporate organisations in curbing the plague of suicide. On this, Akinwale the mental health professional enjoins organizations to inculcate the culture of reviewing their staff, by inviting emotional health coaches.
With reference to Obi’s case, Akinwale said the journalist’s attempted suicide might be unconnected to the #SexForGrade documentary.
“If a therapist should dig deep, it may not because of the sex-for-grade accolades,” she tells Ridwan.
“She has been having that build-up. Maybe she has always done something and it has always been her subordinate getting the glory or her bosses.
“If you even trace it far deeper, it would have stemmed from something way more different than just work.
“So, corporate organizations should ensure that even when they put the pressure on their staff, there is a way to measure that pressure.
“So now, I have done something. My ego needs validation. I want to feel important also. You should make me feel important.
“The credit should go to me, and the things that came with the work, because I gave my all.
“One of the areas of mental health is vocational wellness, like you have that all-round composition with your work that contributes to your mental health.
“So if work is the one giving me issues, it's really going to affect me. Therefore, organizations should also review the staff. They could have a therapist come once in a while, so that they can make recommendations.”
In the end, everyone has a role to play in curbing suicide. Like Ofila realised the burden needs not be borne alone. And like Adeagbo's lesson, no problem is worth losing a life for. Looking out for friends, family and employees is key especially in a difficult economy. And as all of the attempters realised, suicide is only the beginning of trouble for loved ones left behind. It is not worth the trouble.