Police suicide: Urgent call for help

BY: Haleema Afra Boakye & Christina Ammah

In a spate of two weeks three police officers of the Ghana Police Service have committed suicide, ironically with the weapons that were meant to protect.

Ghanaians woke up again to the shocking news of another senior police officer who had taken his own life.

The cases of the suicide of DSP Divine Asiam on February 14; Constable Eugene Yelnon on February 1, 2021 and Superintendent Cyprain Zenge on January 30 are alarming, to say the least.

The questions that come to mind are, “What is going on in the Ghana Police Service and how is the mental health of officers prioritised in the service?”  

Mental health is an important aspect of health to everyone and specifically to people in stressful roles.

But what will make a person take his or her own life? Sadly, suicide is a tragic reaction to stressful life situations and an inability to seek and/or access immediate help.

The good news is that suicide is preventable. 

While suicide is death caused by self-directed injurious behaviour with the intent to die, its onset is preceded by suicidal ideation, which refers to thinking about, considering, or planning suicide.

A World Health Organisation (WHO) 2014 report suggested that suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15 to 29 year-olds worldwide, and suicide takes over 800,000 lives per year, with a suicide-related death happening every 40 seconds somewhere around the world.
Official data

While official data on the epidemiology and burden of suicide in Ghana seem deficient, due to the stigma, taboo or shame, as well as the negative cultural and religious beliefs associated with it.

Anecdotal statistical evidence demonstrates that about five people die by suicide in a day in Ghana with victims being predominantly male (85 per cent) and young (average age of 34years).

It is also a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment in Ghana. The Criminal Code of Ghana (Act 29 of Ghana, Section 57; Subsection II, 1960) provides that “whoever attempts to commit suicide shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.”

Thus, a person who attempts suicide is subject to arrest and prosecution, and upon conviction is made to face criminal sanctions. They rather need professional help. 

Psychosocial challenges, such as, marital difficulties, poor academic performance, economic hardships, lack of social support, shame and hopelessness are implicated in death by suicide.

Suicide is also associated with some mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, extreme stress and failed coping mechanisms.

Clinical depression

Clinical depression is a serious medical illness that negatively affects how one feels, thinks and acts.

Individuals with clinical depression are often unable to function as they used to. They tend to lose interest in activities that were once enjoyable to them and feel sad and hopeless for extended periods of time.

Clinical depression is not the same as feeling sad or depressed for a few days and then feeling better. It can affect one's body, mood, thoughts and behaviour. It can change eating habits, feelings and thought, one's ability to work, study and function socially.

Clinical depression is not a sign of personal weakness, or a condition that can be wished away. Clinically depressed people cannot "pull themselves together" and get better.

In fact, the condition often interferes with a person's ability to get help. It can last for weeks or months and is no respecter of persons.

The risk factors include exposure to crime, suicide or other job-related stressors.

There is evidence that chronic workplace stress has a more significant impact on officers’ mental health than critical incidents such as officer-involved shootings.

It is important for the Ghana Police Service to organise counselling through debriefing and stress management for its officers.

Monthly welfare meetings can be conducted in conjunction with mental health professionals like counsellors and psychologists.

The Mental Health Authority (MHA) and the Ghana Psychological Association (GPA) can provide such support.

To make it easier for police officers to reach out for help, the Ghana Police service can employ the services of psychologists to conduct a trainer-of-trainers programme to equip administrators, officers and staff on how to recognise and respond to suicide risk.

A Crisis Suicide Prevention Lifeline and Crisis Response Counselling Text Line can be set up as well. All calls should be treated with the utmost confidentiality.

Officers' family and friends should be encouraged to contact a centralised help desk to be managed outside the service if they are concerned about their loved ones.

The writers are a retired Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) of the Ghana Police Service and Human Rights Advocate & a senior lecturer at the Department of Counselling Psychology, University of Education, Winneba.