Every 40 seconds, a person dies by suicide somewhere in the world. Over 800,000 people die by suicide every year, yet, suicides are preventable according to the World Health Organization. Suicide takes place when one deliberately kills him/herself. There are several factors that may account for suicide, these includes mental disorder (such as depression, personality disorder, alcohol dependence, or schizophrenia), and some physical illnesses, such as neurological disorders, cancer, and Human Immune Virus (HIV) infection. There are effective strategies and interventions for the prevention of suicide.
Over these few months, there has been a rise in suicide cases in the country. Many have attributed this to mental illness and certain situations that people are confronted with. The media, doing what it always does best, has been able to cover most of these cases but new cases arise each day. Do we need to question the way the reporting was done? In a research conducted by Schmidtke (1989), provided a clear evidence that media portrayals of suicide influence the public and irresponsible reporting by the media increases imitation.
According to the Criminal Offence Act -1960 (ACT 29) of Ghana, ‘whoever attempts to commit suicide shall be guilty of a misdemeanor’, which implies that it is criminal to commit suicide in Ghana. Like most countries, suicide was once illegal in Britain. Suicide attempts were punishable by public execution and there are accounts of such executions as late as 1860. People who died by suicide, and those executed for their attempts, were buried at cross-roads in the belief that their spirit would not be able to find their way back to their towns (Alvarez 1980) Suicide was decriminalized in 1961 in England and Wales with the Suicide Act (Kelly & Dale, 2011). In Ghana, it is shameful for a family to have a member commit suicide and it is customary to pour libation so that the person’s soul would be accepted in eternity.
These are some stories that were gathered from several media outlets in Ghana.
• The story was titled ‘Woman commits suicide at clinic in Eastern Region’ and was reported on the 3rd of March, 2017. The picture used for this article showed a hand on the floor depicting suicide which is culturally right and I believe it’s ethical. The reporter started the story with an introduction like this, ‘Another suicide case has been recorded in the Eastern Region, where a JHS student also died in a similar manner’. The reporter went on to disclose the victim’s name and described a security man’s account of the story and included a personal problem that the deceased had. The method of death was also described as ‘hanging on a rope by a water reservoir at a clinic in the Afram Plains South District. The rising number of suicide cases in Ghana presently was addressed. A psychologist who was interviewed asked government to invest in mental health to reduce the suicide cases and also addressed the lack of support for mental health in the country.
• The second story was on the 13th of March, 2017. As earlier stated, the picture was ethical. This time, the title was ‘Man allegedly commits suicide at Ashiaman’. For the introduction, the reporter had this to say, ‘A man believed to be in his early 30s was found bare-chested on a Monday hanging dead on a Neem tree at the Ashiaman irrigation development site’. The writer said in the article that, the identity of the victim was not known by residents and stressed on the rising case of suicide in the country.
• This happened on the 8th of March, 2017 was about ‘University of Ghana Student suspected to have committed suicide. The reporter introduced this story like this, ‘a level 400 student of the University of Ghana, Jennifer Nyarko is reported to have jumped to her death Wednesday dawn’. Just like the other stories, there were speculations as to the reason that might have caused her to end her life.
• A man who allegedly committed suicide at Old Achimota on the 9TH of March, 2017. With this story, some hawkers and residents of the old Achimota overhead who witnessed the man’s body hanging on a tree nearby, suspected a foul play claiming the victim was depressed as a result of a lost bet or murder claiming the set up didn’t look real.
• In addition to this, one of the media houses also reported on a Member of Parliament’s daughter who committed suicide over exams results on the 24th of February, 2017. The method used, just like the other stories was hanging and according to the story, she died at the Kwame Nkrumah university of science and technology in her room. From the report, she left a note that read’ am sorry to disappoint you mummy and daddy for not being the girl you wanted me to be’.
• There was also a report on a Legon final year student who committed suicide by jumping from 4th floor. Here, the reason underlying her death was not clearly disclosed but a family member made mention that she was ill for some time.
• This story had a title, ‘9 Suicide committed within 14 days’. This story made mention of ten suicide cases that had happened within those 14 days. The writer mentioned the name and method used to commit suicide. The writer called on the various stakeholders to help curb the menace. One particular case mentioned in this story talked about a 70-year-old, Tetteh McCarthy, a resident of Dogo, a suburb of Ada, who allegedly killed himself in his room. According to the reporter, he was said to have informed the family about his intension to commit the heinous crime on any of the Fridays. Information indicated that his family jokingly asked him to prepare and provide the necessary things for his burial before taking his life if he was going to honor his promise. According to the writer, the deceased was said to have gone to his room and brought GH₵ 1,400 as expense for his burial, specifically to buy his coffin and pay his grave diggers. A relative, who confirmed the man’s death said, ‘He said he wanted to kill himself because he had been neglected by his family. This is because his sister bought another sister a phone and did not get him one, which provoked him.
The philosopher Tom Beauchamp (1993) divides factors in the ethical analysis of suicide into five categories: those involving the principle of respect for life, the theological position, the principle of autonomy, the principle of duty to others and the utilitarian position. For the purpose of this discussion, some of these positions would be addressed.
The decision to report on suicides has always been a tough ethical dilemma for journalists (Smith, 2014). According to Smith (2014), the rule of thumb seems to be: If the person is a private individual (private in the sense, as someone who hasn’t sought public attention) and the suicide takes place in his or her private residence, then you simply don’t report it. This changes if a private person commits suicide in a public way such as jumping off a bridge in the center of the city. The reporting of the story of the 70 years old man was not ethical, it did not follow the rule of thumb postulated by Smith (2014) and intruded the privacy of his family. In reference to some of the stories like that of the MP’s daughter, reporting the case was not an issue but the publishing of her notes was not ethical according to the code of ethics in terms of reporting news. I believe this move by the writer invaded the privacy of her family, raising lots of issues surrounding her demise.
According to this research, those who committed suicide were adults but what of individuals who are under the legal age of consent, or who have intellectual disabilities or mental disorder? Are they permitted a ‘rational suicide’? No (Brandt, 1980). Our society considers that the decision by such a person to take their own life is ‘irrational’ (as judged by clinicians and approved by law) and therefore morally impermissible (Brandt 1980), for their lives are considered to be ‘worth living’ (Glover 1990). Most of the individuals in the stories discussed were suffering from one form of mental disorder of another, however there was no justification for them to have killed themselves.
People with a history of psychiatric disorder are at higher risk of suicide than people without such a history (Goldacre et al, 1993). This is evident in the stories that were discussed. From the findings, it could be noticed that most of the people who committed suicide were either suffering from some mental illness or were confronted with some situations that they found hard to face.
Some of the media houses did a good job by reporting on the various angles to the problem such as including the opinions of various stakeholders like the police, public relation’s officers of institutions and health care providers. Some journalists just made mention of the cases and added opinion on what onlookers suspected to have caused the suicide which is unprofessional.
Battin (1996) identifies duty to others as a further argument in favor of suicide prevention. Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) propounded these views and the belief that humans are sentinels who must not desert their posts unless given a divine command to do so (Battin 1996). A duty to others would make interventions to prevent suicides permissible. The story concerning the 70 years old man could have been prevented if the family members had taken an initiative to prevent this untimely death of the old man. Beauchamp (1993) describes the principle of autonomy as asserting ‘an obligation to respect the decision-making capacities of autonomous persons by not limiting their liberty to affect their choices’. The moral permissibility of suicide raised by the principle of autonomy does not apply to individuals who are unable to make autonomous decisions. In as much as he had his right to take decisions on his own, the knowledge of him wanting to kill himself should have been considered by his family since they have a duty to take care of him.
John Stuart Mill states that we ‘are justified in temporarily intervening in order to ensure that a person is acting intentionally with adequate knowledge of the consequences of the action’, but that once this has been done the person should be allowed to do as they please (Mill 1859). According to the story, the family members did not make any effort to stop him from killing himself but rather encouraged him. The principle of respect for life suggests that members of the public are morally justified and possibly obligated to report suicide threats. This view can be extrapolated to include a moral obligation to prevent suicide (Kelly & Dale, 2011). Probably they felt he was old and it didn’t really matter if he died. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy’ (Camus 1942). There were some unethical issues like showing a picture of an individual hanging on a tree which was not appropriate though it was a duty of the reporter to tell the story, there was no need showing the picture.
The theological position relates to the principle of respect for life: for Christians, God is viewed as creator and so taking one’s life is disrespectful towards God (Baelz, 1980). With the rising incidence of suicide, it is evident that most people do not have respect for their lives and most stakeholders have ignored their duty to protect people who are vulnerable of committing suicide due to some situations that they are been confronted with.
Naessiamba Eab- Aggrey
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