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What the Health: When the silence of many mutes the voice of one

Auckland, N.Z.— The news about celebrities taking their own lives last month made me think about the issues of self-harm and self-destruction in our region. To this day, the content and the title itself of Father Francis X. Hezel’s article, “Micronesia’s Hanging Spree,” still gives me chills every time I muster the courage to re-read it. The brave, albeit not uncontroversial piece, shed a necessary light on suicide being an unprecedented issue in the mid-1970s, having reached an epidemic proportion in the region, overtaking infectious and non-communicable diseases to become the leading cause of death among 15 to 30-year-olds.

It seems implausible to think that the motivating factors described in the 1976 article would still be as relevant today as they were then —with many issues revolving around interpersonal relationships – prompted by an inability to confront rejection and heartbreak, small quarrels and family negligence. But somehow, I feel like nowadays, regardless of whatever has changed in terms of primary contributing factors, the issue of suicide has become so taboo and unmentionable and even stigmatized, that all we see are numbers and statistics and rarely do we get to critically assess and understand the qualitative factors behind the issue.

Without intending to downplay the importance of public, private and non-profit agencies that dedicate their efforts to promote mental and behavioral wellness, the biggest impediment I see in the services and interventions they provide is that most require some form of referral, either from family members or hospitals. Some even require would-be victims to voluntarily seek services themselves.

In order to succeed in addressing suicide as a social issue, the community must have a more in-depth understanding as well as awareness of the social and cultural factors that both promote and prevent self-destructive behavior. This is especially crucial for the youth, who as I had previously written about, do not have an adequate outlet beyond their peers to voice out their personal concerns and issues.


However, fostering such community-based intervention would not come without challenges. One such difficulty would be the deteriorating sense of community. We find it difficult to directly and personally address community issues, either because we dismiss them as someone else’s problem or leave them to a public agency that is responsible to deal with such issues.

Perhaps an even more challenging issue is the stigma attached to suicide. Families with loved ones who took their own lives bear the shame from the tragedy and are forever associated with mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse or being weak-willed. This mentality serves as the community’s mechanism to free itself of guilt and liability whenever a suicide occurs in the community. As opposed to death by accident, illness or natural cause, a death by suicide prompts the community to robotically point the finger at the deceased victim’s family, accusing them of being neglectful accessories to the crime.

These observations may appear to be an insensitive generalization and exaggeration of the delicate issue of suicide, but I think they are warranted to prove my point that those who are most in need of their community’s help are ultimately betrayed and forsaken while blamed for their own misfortune.

A recent news article reported that New Zealand has the highest rate of youth suicide in the developed world – most victims being young Maori and Pacific Islander men. Having studied here in Auckland for the past two years, I have observed first-hand how some of the larger social determinants of health such as racism, income inequality, and lack of education can prompt risky behaviors, particularly among Maori and Pacific Island people. Besides these macro forces, which are beyond any individual’s control, the minorities live in a predominantly western society whose mainstream culture and ideology are based on individualism.

But what about us in Micronesia? We seldom have to deal institutional racism, and we who do not lack affordable education and healthcare. We are the majority in our own lands who wield political and economic power. What about us who still have a chance to gather and harness the strength of community and kinship to ensure the well-being and welfare of all our community members? We who supposedly still believe in the strength of our cultures and traditions being the safety net for those at most risk in the community? What’s our excuse? Perhaps as a society, we are all guilty of inflicting harm upon one another. So perhaps if we put us before I, we’d do a better job of ensuring and maintaining life for one and all and in doing so, prevent any further cases of su-we-cide.

Gaafar Uherbelau is a social marketer for the Palau Ministry of Health and is currently studying Social Sciences for Public Health at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Send feedback

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