The whys of suicide

Buena Bernal

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Families should provide a support system. It is the best deterrent to suicide.

MANILA, Philippines – Suicides don’t happen because of one single reason. When people take their lives, it’s always a result of “a confluence of events or a series of events that have unfolded over a long period of time,” grief counsellor and educator Cathy Babao explained on Rappler’s #TalkThursday.

American Association of Suicidology (AAS) founder Edwin Shneidman always says in his lectures that it is not likely for one theory to ever adequately explain the variety and complications of phenomena involving human self-destructive behavior.

A psychological autopsy may be conducted after the suicide incident. It can shed light on the circumstances that led a person to pull the trigger.

A psychological autopsy is very scientific. To understand the suicide, the person’s childhood must be understood, the coping mechanism he or she has developed over time, the person’s psychological make-up, the stressors in one’s environment, and even genetic predispositions.

This means the tragic death of University of the Philippines Manila student Kristel Tejada should not be attributed to her school problems alone. It may seem to be the trigger, but it’s definitely not the whole story. 

Never take lightly

Tejada tried to warn her loved ones about her plan to commit suicide.

In the weeks leading to her suicide incident, the 16-year-old had already been joking about, and mentioning death to her family and friends. Her mom, Blesilda ‘Bles’ Tejada, shared instances when Kristel hinted at taking her life.  

“She asked her sibling if he thinks heaven is true,” Bles said in Filipino.

A high school classmate of Kristel also mentioned how the young Tejada, answering a question in an online conversation on when their next reunion would be, jokingly implied that their next reunion would be on the burial of one of them.

Dr Romeo Y. Enriquez, former president of the Philippine Psychiatric Association (PPA), explained that jokes of that nature should be taken seriously.

“A friend needs to inform the next of kin or significant other about it as soon as possible,” Enriquez said.

About 70% of those who threaten suicide actually attempt it. Open and honest communication always helps, said counselor Cathy Babao.

Ang sakit lang, sana kinausap niya ako na may nararamdaman siya… Eh hindi eh. Parang puro, ano lang, pahapyaw lang… Akala ko nagjo-joke siya,” said a teary-eyed Blesilda. (It pains me. I hope she talked to me about what she felt… But no, they were all just hints. I thought she was joking.)

In a separate interview, Babao said pronouncements about death and suicide “signify a deeper problem.” The friend on the listening end should “probe” the reasons behind such pronouncements. Professional help should be sought, especially if the person refuses disclosure.    

LOA as trigger?

A quick look at Kristel’s personal effects shows her strong attachment to education. A note on why she wanted to undergo Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) reveals her dream of becoming a military-doctor.  

The program is an additional financial burden because it means commuting to UP Diliman in Quezon City. She could have opted for the cheaper alternative of community service.

Displayed at Tejada’s wake were her medals and ROTC uniform.

LOVE FOR EDUCATION. Displayed at Tejada’s wake were her medals and ROTC uniform. Photo by Buena Bernal

A letter to a city councillor appealing for educational assistance was also retrieved from her belongings.

Ang ininda niya lang talaga, yung takot niya, yung fear niya, yung sa LOA. Parang tinatanong niya din sa sarili niya [kung] bakit siya kailangan magka-ganon, anong nagawa niya (What burdened her, really, what she feared was the leave of absence. It’s like she was asking herself why she had to be in that position, what she did to deserve it),” said Bles, explaining the sentiments her daughter shared to her during one of their intimate conversations.

Family’s role

Tejada’s parents are convinced that having to stop schooling took a toll on Kristel. But Babao explained that very rarely can a trigger be actually pinpointed. There is no way it can be probed after death.

JUSTICE FOR KRISTEL. The Tejada couple, leading the march, is convinced that having to stop schooling indeed took a toll on Kristel. Photo by Rafael Ligsay

But Dr. Enriquez said the trigger can be a trivial stressor if the patient suffers from clinical depression or psychosis. For “apparently healthy individuals,” the trigger can be something very significant, such as a scandal.

Enriquez also highlighted the role of the family as a support system. Family, he said, is the best deterrent to suicide.

“Love should prevail in the family. A suicidal person may not push through with the idea because he does not want his loved ones to suffer,” he explained.

What can be done

The death of Kristel brought the issue of both education and mental health into the limelight. An organization that offers its services to individuals who may be undergoing inner turmoil similar to the one Tejada went through is the Natasha Goulbourn Foundation (NGF-Hope).

Dr Enriquez, who also serves as chairman of NGF, hopes that the Philippine Psychiatric Association, along with NGF, can collaborate with government agencies, such as the Commission on Higher Education and the Department of Education, to develop local guidelines on suicide prevention, intervention, and management for schools.

“Currently, most US states have guidelines available,” he added.–

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