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From economic growth to rising suicide rates: The urgency of an Ubuntu-centred ideology for Africa

What forces have propelled this previously unthinkable trend?

In an unprecedented revelation, the World Health Organization, on World Mental Health Day 2023, stated that Africa now has the highest rate of completed suicides globally. “Around 11 people per 100 000 per year die by suicide in the African region, higher than the global average of nine per 100 000 people,” states the World Health Organization in their most recent report. This stark departure from the continent’s known traits of congeniality, community spirit, and resilience begs the question: What forces have propelled this previously unthinkable trend?

Africa, like the rest of the world, is undergoing rapid transformation. Yet, the nature of this change suggests an ominous trajectory, threatening to render the continent unrecognizable in the coming decades. It underscores the urgent need to scrutinize the growing inclination towards self-annihilation among Africa’s populace. This examination is a call to action for every mature individual to contribute to reversing the escalating suicide rates in Africa, which, left unchecked, will likely exacerbate in the coming years. It is aimed in this essay to unearth potential reasons behind this surge in suicide in Africa, and to explore pathways towards a more optimistic outlook.

Between Economic Growth and Self-Destruction

Africa’s sharp rise in cases of completed suicides “coincides” with the rise of many countries from the region as the global fastest-growing economies in 2022. It is projected that, by the end of 2023, six out of the ten fastest-growing economies in the world will come from Africa. In another ironic “coincidence,” Botswana, the country with the highest rate of improvement in the area of innovation, also recorded the highest rate of suicide rates in Africa in 2022. Scholars, including this author, have written elsewhere about the dire consequences of Africa’s pursuit of undiluted, neoliberal-style economic growth on the collective social psychology, mental health and emotional well-being of its citizens. A disenchanted, highly disillusioned population is only one of the penalties of neoliberalism now being reaped in Africa. To counter this situation, Africans will have to build novel political, economic and social systems that are rooted in the Ubuntu philosophy.

Increased Cellphone Use

According to reports from the World Bank and the African Development Bank, there are a staggering 650 million mobile users in Africa, surpassing the figures in the United States or Europe. In some African countries, more people have access to a mobile phone than to essential amenities like clean water or electricity. As the connection to mobile phones expands, so does the ease of accessing information. However, a concerning trend emerges – the proliferation of bad news. Many individuals share distressing information through their mobile phones, contributing to a pervasive consumption of negative news. Numerous studies have linked this exposure to fake/negative news to increased levels of distress, anxiety, and depression, creating a troubling narrative. The normalization of sharing grim news and disturbing images has taken root in many African societies, resulting in a decline in trust and a depletion of belief in humanity across diverse cultures.

Conversely, heightened access to social media has been associated with mental health challenges. A 2018 study conducted in the UK has associated social media use to diminished, disrupted, and delayed sleep, factors linked to depression and memory loss—both recognized as suicide risk factors. Another stress-inducing aspect of social media is the inclination to compare oneself with others. When individuals scrutinize the social activities of others online, they often find themselves making comparisons, questioning whether they received as many likes as someone else, or pondering why one person liked their post while another did not. This quest for validation on the internet replaces the meaningful connections that could be fostered in real-life interactions.

As a result of phone addiction, relationships are becoming increasingly ephemeral. Gone are the days when individuals engaged in hours-long conversations with family members or friends, looking into each other’s eyes. Now, a phone is always at hand, ready to divert attention.

Positive, prolonged self-reflection, once a hallmark of an examined life, is rapidly becoming a relic. Socrates’ famous words, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” take on a prophetic tone. Socrates might well have foreseen the high suicide rates in the millennia to come as people immerse their minds in information, spending less time in undistracted introspection. Soon, many of these individuals consider their unexamined lives not worth living, opting to end it all.

Africans must learn to reclaim their lives. This is not an advocacy for the abandonment of mobile phones. Mobile phones have brought about unimaginable progress across sectors in Africa. Yet, moderation is a strong indicator of inner strength and discipline. Africans will have to practise self-discipline and (personal) censorship in their mobile phone use. Having a set time for the use of mobile devices is a great way to start. Putting away cellphones to have long and winding meaningful conversations and to be by oneself in long moments of reflection are essential practices. Being very mindful of the information we allow in our space is critical. Reading, watching and sharing negative news should be seriously curtailed. Bedtime should not be spent staring at cellphones. At the end of the day, Africans will have to control their use of mobile phones and not allow phones to control their lives. It is the hallmark of civilized societies to maintain discipline over such issues as communication.

Diet and Depression

The central role of diet in mental health is not often discussed, even in the Global North. Yet, research is filled with connections established between diet and mental health. Years ago, African traditional food was what many Africans relied on for nutrition. Today, a rising middle class has embraced imported unhealthy nutrition-lean diets that have been linked to mental health crises and increased suicide risk.

Earlier research has demonstrated links between unhealthy dietary patterns and adverse mental health outcomes, such as depression, low mood, and anxiety in adolescents. Inadequate consumption of fruits and vegetables is specifically tied to depressive symptoms. Moreover, daily soda intake has been established as a factor associated with feelings of sadness or hopelessness, as well as an increased likelihood of contemplating and attempting suicide.

Take the research that has established a relationship between diet and post-partum depression, for instance. Traditionally, across African societies, newborn mothers are treated to a special diet for a specified period of time. Grandmothers, aunties, and older female relatives would take pride in preparing these special delicacies for women when they had babies. Today, modernization has consigned this knowledge and practice to the archives in many parts of the continent. More and more new mothers across Africa are being afflicted with depression, which sometimes leads to suicide.

African governments will have to embark on a campaign to promote African indigenous foods. This campaign will have to transcend the traditional forms of government advertising (newspapers and other traditional media) to generously include the active and sustained coopting of social media influencers, religious leaders, teachers, artists, and other individuals that citizens hold in high regard.

A Breakdown in Community Relations

Once the hallmark of many African societies, communality is declining rapidly across Africa. As people stay more glued to their cellphones, they find little need to socialize in person and tell stories. Yet, stories make us human, keep us going, and make us feel and connect with other people’s emotions (of pain, love etc), helping us realize that we are not alone. No amount of social media posts, likes, responses/comments, repostings, electronic hugs, emojis and DMs can take the place of real-time, sustained, and long-winding physical live interactions with fellow humans.

Take, for instance again, the whole idea of postpartum depression. It used to be that when people had children back in the day, the new mothers were surrounded by family and friends. The joy in a household with a newborn is palpable. Well-wishers trooped in and out. The mother knew that, without a doubt, she had accomplished a feat worth celebrating by bringing another human being into this world. What do we have today? In a social media, celebrity-focused, outward beauty-enthralled society, even before birth, would-be mothers are panicking about their weight gain. Husbands are insinuating how they want their wives the way she was when they got married. And once the baby comes, mothers get into starvation mode, worrying about any morsel that enters their mouth. Many spend long hours in the mirror worrying about their looks, thereby triggering depression. Many relatives are, of course, working and doing business to make ends meet. Not many people have the time to luxuriate anymore in the name of attending joyfully to a new mother. Or perhaps, having watched too many forwarded messages on the horrible things that evil people do to other people’s children, some couples have become too terrified to allow visitors. In some parts of the world, couples actually ask family and friends not to visit for a period of time since they want to “bond” with their baby. In this isolation, newborn mothers gradually deteriorate into a mental health crisis.

Africans must make efforts to become more community-minded in order to rediscover our selflessness and large-heartedness, and our non-judgemental attitude towards people. Africans will have to be the continent to restore the idea of beauty as being beyond the physical, to replenish the global reserve of a generosity of spirit that puts out our best while looking and hoping for the best from others.

Stress and Increased Suicide Risk

Many citizens across Africa report that they are under stress. Stress plays a central role in virtually all prominent theories of suicide. Young unmarried people are under social stress; they report less marriageable, responsible people. Wives put pressure on husbands to provide more financially, while men expect their wives to actively contribute to family income. Parents are under stress to afford the escalating cost of feeding, housing, and education. Mothers are out in the workforce, leaving babies and children for long hours under the care of strangers in business centres labelled daycare. Children are as stressed as their parents. Employees are stressed out by the unreasonable demands of employers. Employers are stressed by dwindling profit margins and tough business environments. And so continues the cycle. Families and loving, long-term relationships are being torn apart as a result of financial stress. In the absence of community, that soft cushion that makes us smile genuinely, life becomes unbearable.

Availability of Mental Health Services

One of Africa’s disadvantages in the unchecked drive towards Western-style advancement is the absence of some panaceas to the effects of such advancements. Take, for instance, the availability of psychologists and mental health experts across the Global North. These mental health practitioners are easily accessible by citizens who, at any point in time, feel unable to cope any longer with any aspect of living. Across many African countries, however, psychologists are a rarity. According to the WHO, “the African region has one psychiatrist for every 500,000 people, which is 100 times less than the WHO recommendation.”

Even the few African healthcare practitioners trained in that field of psychiatry are stewed in the Western consciousness and understanding of that field. Their education is alien to the lived reality and experiences of many Africans, making them not soundly equipped to address mental health issues across Africa. There remains a dearth of research conducted and disseminated by African psychologists that are based on authentic social and cultural psychology of different regions and communities across the continent. And therein lies the suggestion here: that Africa begins a drive not just towards training mental health experts but most importantly towards the promotion of an Afrocentric mental health paradigm. Short of that, the continent risks a continued entrenchment of the detachment that exists between the field of psychology and Africa’s mental health challenges.

Concrete policy measures are urgently required to fortify mental health responses across Africa, especially in nations facing severe challenges like Lesotho, which has one of the highest suicide rates per capita globally. Despite its alarming situation, Lesotho lacks a national mental health response strategy, underscoring a critical need for immediate intervention. A comprehensive campaign is needed to enlighten Africans about the diverse causes of depression and other mental health issues. This awareness initiative should be skilfully combined with efforts to encourage individuals facing mental health challenges to seek help promptly.

Africa’s unfortunate record as the continent with the highest rate of suicide in 2023 is not a supernatural phenomenon occasioned by wicked spirits. Neither is that statistic a result of the historical realities of slavery or colonialism. Africa’s high rate of suicide came about as a result of the uninformed actions of Africans who are bent on the wholesale copying of Western pathways to advancement. These actions have turned into a way of life with tragic consequences. To reverse the figures, Africans will need to reverse the actions that brought the figures about by focusing on homegrown, grassroots-based, endogenous pathways to social and economic advancement that place appropriate emphasis on community, indigenous food systems, physical activity, rest and wholesome, human-centred and dignifying enterprises and relationships.

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