The five of us huddled together around a small television in a one room condominium in the heart of Addis Ababa. We had gathered to watch the World Cup match of Brazil versus Colombia and little conversation occurred during the first half outside of the occasional celebratory cheer or a sigh of disappointment. When half time arrived, though, my co-worker mentioned to her friends that we worked together at the local university. One of her friends asked what we did. She mentioned that I was working on suicide research. Her friend turned to me and said “Okay, I have a few questions. Isn’t suicide just a call for attention and how common is suicide in Ethiopia? Is it a problem and how does Ethiopia compare to other countries?”
I had arrived in Addis nearly a month before in search of answers to such questions. Over the past month, I had been riffling through and extracting information from various academic papers on suicide in Ethiopia and other low-income countries, attending PhD seminars on mental health research methodology, shadowing at the sole psychiatric hospital in the city, and navigating complex datasets from the research team -- all with the purpose of trying to better understand suicide and mental illness in Ethiopia. I had written in my Royce proposal that I wanted to “increase the evidence base for depression and suicide in low-income settings." This conversation in a casual non-academic context felt like the ultimate test.
I first tried to explore the issue around suicide just being a cry for attention. This is one of the most prevalent stigmatizing myths around suicide and I proposed that whether or not a person is saying that they want to end their life because they are truly suicidal or want attention, it doesn’t matter. If a person is expressing thoughts of suicide they should receive care and attention no matter what. This sparked a fascinating thirty minute long conversation about suicide. I explained the immense shame, stigma, and poor care suicide attempters often receive globally. I used academic terminology, such as diathesis-stress, epigenetics, and the interpersonal model, to explain why one might attempt suicide. I spit out statistics and prevalence rates from the papers I had been reading that showed that suicide is in fact a problem in Ethiopia.
Yet I remembered that at the Royce Fellowship induction ceremony in April, we were implored to not just talk, but to also listen. So I listened.
I heard explanations about why the methods used for attempting suicide are different in Ethiopia than in the States, how those who die by suicide don’t receive the same burial practices from the church, and other details about suicide in Ethiopia. What struck me the most is that every single person in the room knew someone who had attempted suicide. Someone talked about how after a friend died by suicide they were left with so many questions and felt immense regret and sadness.
After spending hours each day in the rigidity of academic writing and statistical tests, it’s often easy to forget what I am truly studying. Behind each prevalence rate is a collection of people and narratives.
Furthermore, our conversation served as a reminder that one person’s attempt does not just affect that individual, but a larger community. Suicide is an incredibly complex, pervasive, and upsetting problem. One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned on this trip is just how little I know. One thing I have realized, though, is that the only way to better understand and hopefully one day prevent suicide is to talk about it. For while academic research may elucidate the nature of the problem, we may only start to solve it through compassion and conversation.