Out of the Dark (Suicide in Syria)

Suicide, once a taboo subject, is now making headlines. Prevention efforts, however, remain insufficient.

“A 16-year-old boy shot himself dead because of an argument with his father.”

This passage was published in an article on Aks Elser website in November. Similar succinct, brutal news briefs about suicide appear regularly in Syrian media. At least 100 news briefs on suicide cases are reported by Syrian publications every year, according to estimates by the Syrian journalists who cover them. The Syrian news website Aks Alser alone has reported 80 suicide cases this year.

Although such widespread coverage of suicide is surely a relatively new phenomenon, it is difficult to determine whether this is because suicide is increasing or if interest in it and coverage of it has simply grown. Most reports paint unsympathetic pictures of suicide victims, focusing on the method of suicide rather than analysing its causes.

“Al-Thawra newspaper sells out every Monday because it dedicates a section to local crimes,” said Yahya al-Aous, a journalist in his thirties who covers suicide for the online magazine Thara. Notably, suicide is included in the crime section. “People are attracted to violence, and, as a result, many newly-established Syrian websites have turned to ‘yellow journalism’ and are solely covering crimes and suicide cases.”

However, the increased media attention of suicides at least makes the issue less of a hidden problem.

“Suicide is becoming less of a taboo here,” Mohammad Dandal, a psychologist who runs a clinic in central Damascus, said.

This shift might be in part due to Syrian religious figures’ liberalising ideas towards suicide. While traditionally, major religions have labelled suicide a sin, some Syrian leaders have moderated their attitudes towards the subject. For example, although Islam forbids those who commit suicide from being buried in a Muslim cemetery, this rule is no longer strictly applied, Sarhat al-Kafen, a sheikh in Damascus, said.

“Today, in most cases, suicide victims are given the same burial rituals as any other Muslim,” Kafen said, explaining that there were no official changes to the rules, but rather a voluntary oversight that is considered merciful. “People recognise that the family is already having a hard time and do not wish to make it worse.”

Rising stress

The increase in media coverage may nevertheless indicate that suicide is on the rise. Identifying reliable figures on it, however, is challenging. There are no statistics on suicide in Syria – neither the Ministry of Health nor the Central Statistics Bureau keep them. Even if they were to, doctors say many families register suicide as sudden deaths to avoid being stigmatised.

Globally, suicide rates are increasing steadily. Today, 3,000 people commit suicide daily and another 60,000 attempt to do so, according to figures from the World Health Organization. Health workers in Syria say they believe the country is no exception, pointing to mental health problems related to the increase in stress of everyday life. Syria’s economic liberalisation, which caused an increase in prices but has yet to boost wages at the same rate, is an ever-present source of anxiety for many people.

“We entered the age of globalisation unprepared,” the psychologist Dandal said. “The economic and cultural changes from this transition were huge and have affected people deeply.”

In tandem, traditional support networks have broken down, leaving people isolated, he explained. This has particularly affected young people. According to Aous, most suicides reported by his website are primarily by young Syrians between age 15 and 30.

“The traditional family structure that used to provide financial, social and psychological comfort to young people is also changing,” he said. “This is taking its toll on young Syrians.”

The stigma continues

Despite some strides, prejudice towards the suicidal and their families remains.

“Many Syrians still view those who commit suicide as murderers,” Aous said. “This is reflected in the way the reporting often doesn’t look at why the person has committed suicide. Instead, it focuses on the method and often draws an unsympathetic picture.”

Legally, people who attempt suicide can be detained and questioned for up to three days while police investigate the case to make sure it was not an attempted murder, Mohammad Ismaeel, a Damascus-based lawyer, said.

Though punishment awaits, few preventative services exist to help stop suicide attempts. Mental health services are limited and people receiving psychotherapy face social stigma. There is no hotline for those considering suicide and no public or private inpatient depression centres exist in Syria. Dandal said this unnecessarily puts people at risk.

“Suicide is not a choice in the way people believe it is, but is caused by mental illness such as depression,” Dandal said. “In 90 percent of the cases, suicide can be prevented by awareness and better facilities, which are still lacking in Syria.”

For those who do seek counselling, the cost of it can be prohibitive. Therapy sessions generally start at about SYP 500 (USD 11), not cheap for most Syrians when this is almost equivalent to the average daily wage in the country.

“I do not have the money to pay for my children’s schooling, so psychotherapy is an unaffordable luxury,” a father of two teenage sons who suffer from depression said.

Action needed

Journalists and health workers told Syria Today that government and civil society organisations could do more to tackle suicide. They emphasised successes in publicising the causes of equally touchy social issues.

“To prevent suicide we need the government to support civil rights organisations’ work in Syria,” Aous said. “Just five years ago few Syrians sympathised with the victims of honour killings, but a swath of civil society campaigns have changed people’s views. The same can be achieved for suicide.”

Dandal said more publicity of mental-health treatment could also help prevent suicide. The majority of his suicidal patients have contacted him after learning about therapies from the television or radio, at lectures or through friends. He has more patients now than ever before, he said, and a few of them even travel from rural areas for their appointments.

“The taboo of suicide is finally breaking in Syria,” Dandal said. “It is now the responsibility of everyone, from doctors to activists, to make sure that vital support is put in place.”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

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