One Tuesday morning in March, 48-year-old farmer Lokoliyo Bwanali set off for his maize plot. He never came back. Neighbours discovered his body later in the small field where he had poisoned himself.
“The wife of the deceased said her late husband was under pressure from creditors and was failing to settle his debts,” said Edward Kabango, from Malawi’s Dedza district police department. “The deceased left his home without explaining to his family members where he was heading until he was later found lying dead in a field, a kilometre from his home.”
Bwanali, said his brother, had approached him in distress over money, but it never occurred to the family that he might kill himself.
Malawi is seeing a sharp rise in suicide rates this year, with some attributing it to the economic stresses of the Covid pandemic. Malawi police service reports an increase of as much as 57% on the same period last year.
“We believe that the rise could be linked to coronavirus since there has been a slowdown in economic activities,” said clinical psychologist Dr Chiwoza Bandawe.
“Suicide is a very serious issue at the moment because we’ve seen from the statistics that the numbers are increasing since January, compared to the same period last year,” Bandawe said.
“It is a drastic rise so it is an issue that needs to be taken seriously. The rise can be attributed to a combination of economic and social factors. I think as people become more stressed – be it from economic or social [factors] – they don’t know how to cope.”
Suicide mortality rate (per 100,000 population) in Malawi was reported at 3.7% in 2016 by the World Bank.
Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. About half of the population are below the poverty line, with 20% described as “extremely poor”.
The full extent of the pandemic’s negative impact is uncertain as the crisis is still unfolding, but a host of external and internal factors are dampening the Malawi economy, according to the World Bank.
Negative trends have already been observed in many businesses, including in companies that have downsized their workforce, leaving thousands unemployed or on less pay. Teachers in private schools, for example, were not paid during the period that schools were closed. The hospitality industry also bore the brunt of the crisis.
“Covid-19 is playing a role in the rise of suicide cases, because the pandemic has changed peoples’ lifestyles,” Mercy Mkandawire, founder of iMind Youth Organisation, which supports the wellbeing of young people, said. “Some people have been laid off work, others are getting pay cuts, so I feel there are a lot of stressors that can trigger someone to take their own life.”
“The sad part is that there are low literacy levels on mental health, so people don’t notice the signs and oftentimes [only] realise after a life has been lost.”
Bandawe said Malawi is lacking in mental health institutions and expertise to help strengthen coping skills: “We don’t have adequate professionals to help people with mental health disorders.”
“Hardly any government hospital has psychologists. They do have psychiatric nurses and clinical officers, and [they] are the ones carrying the mental health burden of the country.”
Director of mental health services at Malawi’s Ministry of Health Immaculate Chamangwana said that although the country has a lack of specialist hospitals, metal health services are embedded in general hospitals.
“In all these hospitals we have psychiatric nurses and clinicians, but these people are not only concentrating on mental health but also … maternity and paediatric [services]. Government deliberately put a policy to have a period where they come to Zomba mental hospital [the country’s only specialised mental health hospital] to ensure that every worker has the necessary skills,” she said.
World Health Organization statistics show that 79% of all suicides happen in low- and middle-income countries.