2020 was a rough year for mental health all over the globe. Personally, I lost two dear friends and a distant relative to suicide. All were men, and all were young. As usual, I took to writing in an attempt to make sense of my grief. Below, I share my thoughts on one incident that was very enlightening on mental health status among young men:
A few months ago, we laid to rest a high school friend. I was not able to attend the burial, but I was part of a WhatsApp group that organized and updated us on the planning. Some of us helped financially and M-Pesa’d the family, some offered prayers and some even attended the burial ceremony. Though this was such a sad affair, it was heartwarming to see the support and goodwill expressed by my former classmates. And it was especially motivating for me to witness the conversations around mental health that came up.
When I first received news of our friend’s passing, I was told that he had died of a short illness (For the sake of anonymity and respect for the family’s privacy, let’s call my friend William –). I had not spoken to William in a year, and I suspected that such a vague reason (i.e., a short illness) could only mean that something was being covered up (A few months earlier, when my uncle passed away, my mum told me that he had died because of a short illness, only to later whisper to me that he had indeed ended his own life by suicide, and that the family did not want people to know lest they start talking.)
In our society, suicide is such a taboo subject that comes with so much shame. No one, not even the friends or family of the deceased, openly admits that their loved one took their own life. Our society is so insulted and disgusted by suicide that people will not even talk about it, or when they do, they whisper as one does when discussing secret information that only a few should know. And the religious leaders who officiate burial proceedings don’t help either – they don’t discuss suicide, they blame it on drugs and alcohol or some other distraction, all out of ignorance. The question has to be asked then: why is suicide such a taboo subject? Why does acknowledging that someone can indeed end their life so appalling for our Christian society? A major reason for this is that our society thinks suicide is a selfish act, that the person who ends their life by suicide does not care for their family and friends. A second reason is that our society has been led by religion to believe that suicide is a sinful act of cowardice that is shameful to even talk about. And a third reason is that people are worried that talking about suicide will actually encourage it, so they mistakenly decide to pretend it doesn’t happen.
I called a fellow friend who had been in touch with William. I knew my friend would be aware of the details of William’s passing. He relayed everything to me, clear as day, and told me that our mutual friend William had ended his life by suicide. He had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder two months prior, and he had been struggling with his mental health for quite some time. For me, that information was adequate – I appreciated that my friend had been honest to discuss such details with me. We ended up speaking about mental illness and how it’s a precursor for suicide, and we also wondered about how our society can help young men confront mental illness.
I have stated before on these pages that “suicide is a lot of things, but selfish is not one of them.” Those who end their lives by suicide do not do so because they don’t care about their families, children, or friends. They end their lives by suicide because they are desperate, lonely and cannot see a way out of their depression. Secondly, I refuse to accept that suicide is a cowardly and sinful act. Sure, the bible forbids suicide, and that is all well and good, but that doesn’t address the issue of the all-consuming mental illness that leads to suicide. And I am willing to entertain the thought that suicide is an act of extreme courage – bravery to look life in the eye, accept the pain and suffering one is going through and decide that death is probably more merciful than living. Those who try to convince us that suicide is cowardly preach that the victim looked at life and was overwhelmed by it and decided to give up. They forget that suicide is borne from mental illness, which is very treatable. Religion has a very crucial role in giving purpose to life, but even the belief in a God does not prevent one from being afflicted with mental illness. Just like a cancer patient prays but still goes to the oncologist, so should a person suffering from depression attend to his religious beliefs while seeking psychological help. So, I urge the clergy to attend to their job of attending to the spiritual lives of society, but they should also educate people about mental health and the benefits of seeking psychological help. Thirdly, speaking about suicide does not encourage it; in fact, it is the best way to fight the stigma around mental illness. Speaking about sucide, depression, schizophrenia etc., will allow us to be comfortable and confident enough to discuss our mental health and find ways to address it.
After the discussion with my friend, I was added to our High school WhatsApp group. Friends expressed their condolences and we all helped each other grieve. However, I was not too surprised to find that no one had appraised the group of William’s cause of death. And so, every day someone would ask what had happened, until one of the admins gave in and revealed that William had been living with bipolar disorder, and that he had died by suicide. This announcement had a lot of mixed reactions. There were those in the group who did not know what bipolar disorder is and therefore took to guessing and asking whether William had been on drugs. The more enlightened members laid out simply and clearly that bipolar disorder is purely a mental illness that doesn’t necessarily have to do with drug and alcohol abuse. A very educational chat about mental illness ensued.
In Kenyan society, mental illness disproportionately affects men. This is the case for majority of the world. And one has to wonder: why does mental illness affect more men than women? I had the chance of discussing this issue with a doctor in my local town and she provided some very insightful answers.
The passing of my friend was a puzzle to many in our high school WhatsApp group. But he had such an excellent job! But he always seemed so happy, he was always smiling! Are just some of the comments that people raised. These questions made for some thoughtful discussion, and our group came to the timeless conclusion that a job and money do not guarantee happiness or mental wellness. Secondly, a smiling face does not always mean that one is happy. So, people, please check on you friends and have genuine conversations – some people smile to mask the loneliness they harbor inside. As young men, especially in Kenya, we have a tendency to joke, and to joke about everything, which means that it is often hard to get to the depth of a conversation. If instead of laughing along, we decide to listen more carefully, probe into those jokes and understand the motives behind them, we'll get a chance to know each other better and empathize with our friends even more. Jokes and smiles are very deceiving, and people with life challenges, especially men who have been taught not to talk about their feelings, can use them to hide their worries and avoid openly discussing the things that matter.
A lot of work needs to be done: our society needs to uproot a lot of attitudes and behaviors that harm men and society in general. For a start, let’s begin with toxic masculinity, slowly cutting at its stem and then digging at the roots till we make sure that we have uprooted the harmful attitudes and behaviors that are causing so much ignorance, suffering and pain. Secondly, let us be more open to confronting mental illness. Our society is weeping from the untimely and preventable deaths of so many young men; we can slowly start wiping off the tears of our families and friends by openly and honestly discussing mental health, listening more carefully and acknowledging mentall illness as an illness that can afflict anyone. If we recognize this, and accept the fact that men can be afflicted by mental illness - just like any man or woman can be afflicted by cancer - then we'll be able to address the crisis that's on our society...and allow our young men to live, and to live happily.
William, my good friend, rest in peace.