Experts say that child suicide in Pakistan is “very rare”, however, data compiled by the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (Sparc) reveals a drastic step-up in attempted suicides with the number going from 42 in 2009 to 80 in 2010.
The information, collected by the Human Rights Commission (HRCP) of Pakistan and Lawyers for Human Rights and Legal Aid (LHRLA), only includes children under 18 years old. It shows a slight increase in actual suicides from 2009 to 2010 - 185 to 187 - but the numbers may be higher as a lot of suicide cases do not mention the age of the deceased.
The issues Pakistani children face today are well known. There is trafficking and kidnapping, violence and custodial abuse, begging and homelessness, bonded labour and juvenile justice, but most people do not understand what would push someone so young to take their own life.
Incidents such as the suicide bombing at Abdullah Shah Ghazi’s shrine by two teenage boys and the occasion where a 15-year-old inmate killed himself in December 2010 are seen as terrorism and faults in the legal system. However, those closer to the issue claim that there is an increasing tendency to attempt and commit suicide.
In the last three months, three girls have taken their own lives, Sparc national manager Iqbal Ahmed Detho told The Express Tribune. Fourteen-year-old A from Garhi Yasin tehsil in Shikarpur killed herself because her brother and husband suspected that she was having an affair because of a wrong-number call on her cell phone. Militancy is another cause - children are bought from their parents or recruited as child-soldiers and later brainwashed into suicide attacks.
Apart from these extreme conditions, a study conducted by Sparc shows that domestic disputes, worries, and scoldings are the most common scenarios that make children feel dejected. After this are conditions such as psychological issues, marriage without consent, domestic and financial issues, unemployment, disease, sexual abuse and even problems in school such as exams or a strict teacher or bullying.
The studies also show that ingesting poison is the most common method used - 51.7% in 2010. Firearms are a distant second at 17.2% while 16.8% hang themselves. Less common is drowning, electrocution, incineration, jumping in front of a train, impaling oneself and suicide bombing.
Taboos blur the focus
According to the police, hospital administration and non-government organisations (NGOs) working for youth, the number of suicide cases in Islamabad and Rawalpindi are increasing with each passing day but majority remain unreported due to social norms and taboos.
A lack of focused research means that this increase cannot be explained. HRCP and LHRLA are among the very few organisations that document juvenile suicides nationally. HRCP’s assistant coordinator Abdul Hayyee told The Express Tribune that while such cases are documented there are no specific studies because most of them are above 14 years old. As suicide is a crime according to the law, it becomes a legal matter.
Dr Muhammad Ishaque Sarhandi, head of the psychiatry department at Dow International Medical College, says that depression is common among children as young as eight or nine, which is a leading cause of suicide, even in adults. “However, cases of child suicide are still very rare,” he observed.
Sarhandi ruled out the common misconception that violence on television or video games pushes children towards suicide. However, factors such as a negative home atmosphere, unsettled families with divorced parents and financial problems also have a bad impact on children.
Small families and ‘spoiling’ a child can be an issue but then again so can neglect. “Childhood experiences such as these can lead to a suicidal tendency later in life.”
Attempted suicide is illegal
Both suicide and deliberate self-harm are against the law in Pakistan. Children above 12 years reportedly hurting themselves must be referred to the Medico Legal Officer in government hospitals - to be punished.
The Mental Health Ordinance, Section 49, also calls for the psychiatric assessment of attempted suicide survivors. This is why researchers fear that the entire problem is grossly underreported. Who wants to come forward?
The Pakistan Penal Code’s (PPC) Section 82 grants children below seven years blanket immunity as they are not mature and have no criminal responsibly. It allows for concessions in sentencing if the child is between seven and 12 years old as they cannot judge the consequences of the ‘offense’. However, anyone above 12 years must take full responsibility.
This makes a child equally punishable under PPC Section 325, 1860 - since the law is same as adults for children - that orders a sentence for up to a year, a fine, or both.
However the Pakistan Medical and Dental Council code of ethics 2001 states that a doctor is not legally compelled to disclose an attempted suicide if the information was confidential.
Experts at Sparc also say that the law on attempted suicide should be reviewed and repealed so that the cases are reported and noted on a databank.
How do you treat a depressed child?
Sarhandi says that treating children is the same as treating adults. The child has to undergo psychotherapy and assessment and be given anti-depressants if needed.
Doctors and experts alike recommend sending children to school, raising awareness among the parents and school-based intervention programmes. Schools should make their student’s mental health a priority.
They also recommend restricting access to the three most common means of suicide - poison, firearms and hanging.
With additional reporting from Sehrish Wasif
Published in The Express Tribune, July 5th, 2011.
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