Our Children are killing themselves. Here is why.

By Mikaela Cunningham

On the evening of April 29th 2020, an 11-year-old student of a primary school in Western Kenya went back home after a day of playing with friends. Everything seemed alright. Nothing in the goings on in the homestead he returned to would prepare the family for what lay ahead.

In a few days, the 11-year-old would be buried, remaining but a memory to be carried in the hearts and minds of his parents and siblings. Transitioning from a young man with such promise to becoming another worrying statistic in the rising number of child suicide cases.

Although official data on child suicides in Kenya may be hard to come by, anecdotal evidence collated by Distory through the analysis of police records and media reports shows that since January, at least 200 suicide cases have been recorded. Sixty of these are recorded as suicides of children aged under 18 years, translating to around 7 minors every month. Every week, two families somewhere in the country bury a child.

These numbers might look like unfortunate statistics. But for families, the suicides of their children open up wounds that may never heal. The questions that the intentional death of a child leave behind weigh too heavily on the collective consciences of those left alive.

“Second guessing becomes key to daily existence. So does blaming each other. In extreme cases, couples separate after the death of their child,” Sarah Kithinji, a counsellor and Vice Chairperson of the National Parents Association says. “You can never go back to normal after this.”

Her association alone has handled 13 cases of child suicides since the beginning of the year.

Sadly, we have lost 7 boys and 6 girls.

Sarah Kithinji, counsellor

They have also handled seven cases of attempted suicide.

The reasons for the deaths, counsellors believe, could be avoided, the biggest of them being undiagonised mental conditions.

“Levels of depression among children are alarming. The causes for this revolve around family and relationship issues,” she says.

Another push factor for the child suicides is what children might perceive to be unfair punishment from their parents and guardians.

“Sometimes it is just a fear of being reprimanded by people in authority. The fear pushes them to take their own lives,” Sarah says.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) places suicides as the second leading cause of death for children, adolescents, and young adults aged between 15 and 24. The majority of children and adolescents who attempt suicide have a significant mental health disorder, usually depression.

“Among younger children, suicide attempts are often impulsive. They may be associated with feelings of sadness, confusion, anger, or problems with attention and hyperactivity,” reports AACAP.

In teenagers, suicide attempts may be associated with feelings of stress, self-doubt, pressure to succeed, financial uncertainty, disappointment, and loss.

“For some teens, suicide may appear to be a solution to their problems,” AACAP says.

“It is unfortunate that suicides are on the rise. The pull and push factors point to a weak self-esteem for a population whose sole reason for existence a search of belonging and identity,” Sarah says.

Sarah says ages 8 to 16 are critical in the mental development of a child and that parents should take time and affirm their children and assure them of their love and support especially during this Covid-19 pandemic when they are at home.

“Every child needs to be loved,” she says.

This way a parent is able to notice any suicide pointers like crying for no reason, locking themselves in their room, bad grooming, staying awake at night, outbursts of anger, bad company, frequent mentions of suicide threats or statements like “I will disappear and you will never see me again.”

But there are other reasons too. For girls, unplanned pregnancies remain a major risk factor. And for boys, a quickness to anger and feelings of undue punishment for misdeeds rank top.

According to the National Council for Population and Development, Kenya recorded 378, 397 adolescent and teenage pregnancies for girls aged 10-19 years between July 2016 and June 2017, specifically, 28, 932 girls aged 10-14 and 349,465 girls aged 15-19 became pregnant. More recently, a study by the African Institute for Development Policy (AFIDEP) showed that as many as 120,000 underage girls fell pregnant between January and May of 2020.

And, the chances for a suicide are even higher if the pregnancy is as a result of a rape.

As the interview with Sarah goes on, her demeanour changes suddenly. She looks at her phone and sighs. She has just seen a message on a counsellor’s WhatsApp Group. Another incident has been recorded. A girl. Aged 16. Death by poison.

Sarah Kithinji, counsellor

“Her mother had chased her from home because she had gone missing for three days,” she reads out loud. “No legal steps taken.”

The WhatsApp message veers our interview into somewhat dark territory. The preferred modes of suicides. Police records coupled with Sarah’s experience as a counsellor darkens the mood further and illustrate just how deep seated the problem is.

A homestead in Uasin Gishu County’s Cherangany village was supposed to be celebrating after their 14- year old son received his Kenya Certificate of Primary Examinations results on 5th December 2019. The entire year had been full of pressure for the child. The pressure to perform in the national examinations and eventually secure a spot in a good high school was immense.

When the boy finally received his results, he felt a huge weight get lifted off his chest. It was as if a chip that had been lodged on his shoulder for eight years had fallen off. For the first time in a long while he felt free. He had scored 324 marks out of a possible 500.

But unknown to him though, the pressure hadn’t relented. In fact, it had just started. This time though, it did not culminate in a national exam, but rather in the self-inflicted death of the child.

A police statement written by the area chief details the last moments of the 14-year-old.

According to the statement, the boy received his results when he was in a nearby market with his mother. On their way home, his mother, upset at the marks his son got told him he would have to be held back and take the national examinations again.

When they got home, the boy walked into his bedroom and hanged himself.

Stamement by Area Chief.

In the cases handled by her organisation, most of the suicides are by hanging. The second most popular method of death, also according to police reports is death by poison.

Another police report details how a nine-year-old girl in Bomet County woke up to see a certain strangeness in the tiny bedroom she shared with her older sister. The floor near her sister’ side of the room was wet. It appeared that the older sibling had vomited in the course of the night.

The nine-year-old moved closer to her older sister. The bigger girls mouth had a foamy substance around it. The younger girl tried to shake the older one awake but there was no response. So she ran outside the room, straight to where her parents were to report what she had seen.

By the time the family carried the older 16-year-old girl out of the house and onward to hospital, there were very little signs of life. She was pronounced dead on arrival at Litein AIC Mission Hospital.

An empty bottle of pesticide was found at the scene. Before the older girl went to bed, she had had an argument with her parents over a romantic relationship. In death, she hoped to act out against the punishment she had received the previous day over what the parents thought to be unnecessary entanglement.

There have also been cases where the child stabs themselves fatally.

Trends show that the number of children taking their own lives may not reduce anytime soon.

But there can be solutions that can defy the trends and set families on the right path.

“Parents need to spend enough time with their children,” Sarah says. “These signs are very visible. You can pick them out and start having conversations with you children. Make your child feel like they are in a safe space when they are with you.”

It is also important to teach children to handle disappointment.

“Life is not a bed of roses,” Sarah says. “It is beautiful and has thorns. What matters most is how we move on after getting pricked.”