How I overcame suicidal thoughts and found hope
John Muiruri Mwangi has tried to commit suicide more than 10 times.
Mwangi, a banker by profession, has over the years battled bipolar, depression, withdrawal and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, mental health conditions that have pushed him to the edge and saw him want to take his life.
“I am an overcomer. I fought hard. And that is why I live to tell my story and encourage people that life is sacred, hence suicide is not a solution to the problems one may be facing,” Mwangi says.
In the first suicide attempt, Mwangi was in Class Four when he received a bad beating at school, which pushed him to try hanging himself in his room at his parents’ home. Luckily, his parents noticed something was amiss and pleaded with him to open the door. He didn’t. They ended up breaking into his room.
The second and third attempts were after he moved to a private school where he felt intellectually inferior and a failure. “I ingested Dettol antiseptic,” narrates the 34-year-old.
The third time, Mwangi developed ulcers, which he thought was too much to bear, so he decided to end his life by ingesting paraffin.
As for the fourth suicide attempt, he was in high school and there was a bit of violence from his alcoholic dad. He tried throwing himself into a well that had been dug in his parents’ home.
The fifth to eleventh suicide attempts were driven by frustrations; loss of finances, alcohol abuse, loss of his family, many hospital admissions, business frustrations, which resulted from uninformed decision leading to huge losses and closure, work pressure due to differences with former bosses and lack of self-esteem.
He tried to end his life by hanging on a tree, crashing his car, overdose of his mental medication, slitting his throat with a knife and at one point even tried to take his own son’s life together with his.
In all these attempts, he is lucky to have been rescued and survived to tell his story.
Mwangi’s has been a journey full of tears, and as the world marks World Suicide Prevention Month this September.
His goal is to inspire people going through rough times that suicide is not the solution.
Mwangi was born in Kinangop constituency in Nyandarua in a family of four boys and two girls. His parents are retired teachers.
While going through this mental turmoil, Mwangi was a top performing student. He scored 412 out of the possible 500 marks in his Kenya Certificate of Primary Education at St Pauls Kinangop Academy in 2003.
He offers: “I received an invitation to join Nyahururu High School, but declined and joined St Mary’s Boys High in Nyeri. I sat for my Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education in 2007 and scored an A- of 78 points.”
He was also very passionate about his rabbit keeping business, which he began while in primary. He pursued bachelor’s in Business Management and graduated from Moi University in 2013 before proceeding to pursue his master’s at Kenyatta University.
In 2018, Mwangi got married to the love of his life and in August 2019, they were blessed with a son.
Little did he know that this was the year mental health issues would hit him hard.
“I was married to a wonderful wife, but unfortunately, my marriage broke and I must say it was instigated by the mental conditions because even my wife was confused and lost in thought about my behaviour. I attempted committing suicide many times and at some point threatened to take my son’s life,” he recounts.
“I was doing well as an entrepreneur and had contracts with good profit margins, but I spent all my savings as well as my wife’s savings amounting to over Sh2.5 million in alcohol and night life. I even sold my car to keep up with the drinking. But I thank God, I no longer drink,” Mwangi explains.
Data from the World Health Organisation shows more than 700,000 people die by suicide annually across the globe.
It also goes to show that suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among 15 to 29-year-olds.
Seventy-seven per cent of global suicides occur in low- and middle-income countries.
In recent years, Kenya has witnessed a disheartening increase in suicide cases.
Mwangi says he has recovered from suicidal thoughts as well as attempts.
“I no longer write suicide notes, which I used to do so often. My mental life has stabilised and I am proud to share my story after a long healing process. I must say that even the people who are close to you, who love you, including your spouse, siblings, parents get confused about such ‘developments’.
"Truth be told, the society has taken this topic for granted. They don’t want to understand it. Suicide and other mental related issues, such as alcoholism, depression, bipolar have been lightly taken in the society,” he notes.
He narrates that between 2021 to date, he has lost over eight friends while some admitted at various mental centres. It is unfortunate that suicide cases have been on the rise in our society, both locally and globally, and about 75 per cent of the cases are by men.
He also admits that there is a lot of stigma from the society for people who have attempted suicide.
“If an individual attempts suicide today and it’s not successful, the society will start rebuking him or her and lash out harsh words at them. Unfortunately, the church will most of the time fail to support these individuals. People must know that there is no harder decision in the world and in human life than that of wanting to commit suicide,” he says.
Commenting on this year’s World Suicide Prevention Month theme Creating Hope through Action, Mwangi says there is need for individuals and stakeholders to stand up and fight suicide.
“Suicide is a global calamity, hence it will take collective effort to fight it. Let us give hope to all who are prone to this vice. You are affected because you are impactual. Allow yourself to see your tomorrow’s greatness, success and impact. Fight, destroy and kill suicide,” he says.
Encourage them to talk
Mwangi remains optimistic that he will have his family back at some point
There is a consistently high rate of suicide among young adults aged 15 to 30 years, Dr Malaika Kamenju, a consultant psychiatrist says. “To prevent suicide cases, we need to address barriers to accessing health care, such as cost, access to quality mental health care and the stigma and fear associated with seeking for help for suicide attempts and mental illnesses in general,” says Kamenju.
“Individuals who have attempted suicide need to be accorded support in terms of encouraging them to talk about how they feel, encouraging them to seek treatment from a qualified mental health care worker, offering them emotional support by listening to them, offering reassurance that they are not alone and there is help available, being patient with them. Also, don’t make assumptions about what they are going through or what caused their feelings,” she adds.
Claire Omolo, a psychologist and mental health consultant at the Nairobi Parenting Clinic, says suicide is rarely caused by a single circumstance or event. Instead, a range of factors—at the individual, relationship, community, and societal levels-can increase risk.
These risk factors are situations or problems that can increase the possibility that a person will attempt suicide.
“Circumstances that increase suicide risk are individual risk factors. Personal factors such as previous suicide attempt, history of depression and other mental illnesses, serious illness, such as chronic pain, criminal or legal problems, job or financial problems, impulsive or aggressive tendencies, substance abuse, a sense of hopelessness and current or prior history of adverse childhood experiences also contribute to risk,” explains Claire.
Watch out for signs
She says all groups of people, the young and old alike, are affected. However, research has it that men are more susceptible to dying by suicide compared to women.
“It is important to recognise suicide warning signs in your loved ones. These may range from severe mood changes, social withdrawal expressing thoughts, feelings or plans of ending their life, saying goodbye to close family members and friends, or giving away valued possessions,” she says.
When it comes to treatment, Claire says those with underlying mental health issues should seek treatment, which may include medication and therapy. There is also need to provide them with a safe atmosphere, offer information and emotional support and demystify stigma to encourage them seek treatment, especially for individuals who have attempted suicide.
“When depressed, do not rush to taking drugs and/or including alcohol. They are recipes for suicide. Have a clear and genuine support system, a confidant who you can call at any time and they will respond to you. If struggling with this suicidal thoughts, avoid being alone.
'Identify a hobby or rather what we call a distraction that fulfills your heart. Go hiking, play football, run, take guided meditation walks and empty your thoughts through writing. Avoid negative energy and people who always condemn you. For men, cry it out. Crying is not a sign of how weak a man is.
"You better cry than die. Above all, seek medical help. Medics and especially in this line will hold your case with utmost professionalism and secrecy,” Mwangi advises.
Legal and policy support in Kenya has come a long way in combating suicides, but there is still a lot of work to be done. The national strategy recommends, in addition to decriminalising suicide attempts and declaring mental ill health a National Public Health Emergency, that community-based services with focus on primary mental health care should be established.
Additionally, it calls for a national suicide prevention programme that will spread information and improve access to support and treatment for suicidal behaviours and other mental health issues.
There is still a lot of work to be done to put the strategy into action, which will include funding for suicide prevention programmes, mainstreaming suicide prevention conversations, and improving data collection on suicide to advance prevention interventions.
The majority of the work, however, is in touching the hearts and minds of the public and generating goodwill for suicide prevention and awareness.