Ris­ing sui­cide toll rings alarm bells in Tu­nisia

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Six years since a young Tu­nisian stall­holder set him­self on fire, trig­ger­ing rev­o­lu­tions across the Arab world, his coun­try’s sui­cide rate is surg­ing over eco­nomic and so­cial woes, ex­perts say. Mo­hamed Bouaz­izi, who self-im­mo­lated on De­cem­ber 17, 2010 in protest at un­em­ploy­ment and po­lice ha­rass­ment and died a month later, was among hun­dreds of Tu­nisians who have killed them­selves in re­cent years. The ris­ing sui­cide rate “had al­ready been no­ticed... over a decade ago”, Fatma Charfi, a child psy­chi­a­trist and head of the Com­mit­tee for the Pre­ven­tion of Sui­cide said.

Last year, au­thor­i­ties recorded 365 sui­cides in a pop­u­la­tion of 11 mil­lion around 3.27 per 100,000 peo­ple. While that rate is low com­pared to other coun­tries, the data is likely skewed by so­cial and re­li­gious ta­boos, mean­ing the real fig­ure may be much higher. The toll is par­tic­u­larly high among the young-around half the vic­tims were aged be­tween 20 and 39. Charfi said the con­tin­u­ous rise in recorded sui­cides was “a very se­ri­ous mat­ter”. The com­mit­tee she heads was set up in 2015 in re­sponse to warn­ings from ex­perts that sui­cides were on the rise.

It has been charged by the health min­istry with col­lect­ing bet­ter data and cre­at­ing a na­tional strat­egy to tackle the prob­lem. Tu­nisia does not yet have a na­tional sui­cide reg­is­ter. Un­der the regime of for­mer dic­ta­tor Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was top­pled in 2011 fol­low­ing mass protests sparked by Bouaz­izi’s sui­cide, the data was in­com­plete, ex­perts said. “There was this com­plex: ‘We don’t have sui­cides, we don’t have vi­o­lence’,” Ab­dessat­tar Sah­bani of the Tu­nisian Fo­rum for Eco­nomic and Po­lit­i­cal Rights (FTDES) said.

But Charfi said com­par­isons of foren­sic data from 1990, 2000 and 2010 showed a clear rise. Af­ter Bouaz­izi’s death, self-im­mo­la­tion be­came the sec­ond-most com­mon method of sui­cide in Tu­nisia (15 per­cent of cases) af­ter hang­ing (60 per­cent). Be­tween Jan­uary and June 2011, sev­eral dozen Tu­nisians set them­selves on fire in sui­cide at­tempts-a phe­nom­e­non that con­tin­ues to­day. “It was ex­pected that in 2015, we would start to ex­pe­ri­ence a de­cline (in self-im­mo­la­tions), but it has re­mained sta­ble since 2011,” Charfi said.

Sui­cides usu­ally have mul­ti­ple causes, of­ten in­clud­ing de­pres­sion and other men­tal ill­nesses. But Tu­nisia’s eco­nomic woes and high un­em­ploy­ment also ap­pear to be key fac­tors. “It’s def­i­nitely linked... the re­sult of an ab­sence of hope,” said Sah­bani. Tu­nisia’s econ­omy has strug­gled to re­cover since the rev­o­lu­tion. Au­thor­i­ties have failed to re­solve the poverty, un­em­ploy­ment and cor­rup­tion that were rife un­der the Ben Ali regime. The all-important tourism sec­tor was dev­as­tated by a se­ries of ji­hadist at­tacks in 2015 that left dozens of for­eign tourists dead and slashed vis­i­tor num­bers. Some 15 per­cent of the work­force was un­em­ployed in the sec­ond quar­ter of 2016, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Sta­tis­tics In­sti­tute.

A 2014 World Bank re­port said job­less­ness was as high as 30 per­cent in Tu­nisia’s im­pov­er­ished in­te­rior, which has been the heart of a sim­mer­ing ji­hadist in­sur­gency since 2011. Foren­sic sci­en­tist Me­hdi Ben Khelil of the Charles-Ni­colle Hospi­tal in Tu­nis is co-au­thor of a study on the rev­o­lu­tion’s im­pact on sui­cide. He said he found an in­crease in sui­cides be­tween 2011 and 2012, then a small re­duc­tion be­fore a sec­ond peak in 2014. He linked the sec­ond rise to the coun­try’s dif­fi­cult po­lit­i­cal tran­si­tion and the im­pact of the eco­nomic cri­sis on in­di­vid­u­als. “There are more peo­ple with­out jobs (and) with fi­nan­cial prob­lems,” he said.

His­tor­i­cally taboo, sui­cide has re­ceived grow­ing cov­er­age in the Tu­nisian me­dia. But that it­self has its dan­gers, say ex­perts. “We are talk­ing about sui­cide in Tu­nisia but mostly in an in­ap­pro­pri­ate way,” Ourida Bous­sada, a lec­turer at IPSI, the coun­try’s old­est jour­nal­ism school, said at a re­cent sem­i­nar. Bous­sada said too much cov­er­age was sen­sa­tion­al­ist and re­vealed in­ti­mate de­tails about the vic­tim’s life. IPSI is work­ing with the jour­nal­ists’ union and HAICA, the body re­spon­si­ble for broad­cast­ing, to im­prove re­port­ing on the is­sue. “We must tackle sui­cide... as a pub­lic health prob­lem, not iso­lat­ing it to a sin­gle cause,” she said, “so that vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple will not be tempted to take the same course of ac­tion.”— AFP

TU­NIS: A Tu­nisian girl poses for a photo in front of the logo of the Carthage Film Festival on Habib Bour­guiba av­enue in Tu­nis. — AFP

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