By Fairuz Ahmed
NEW YORK, May 18 2020 (IPS)
The World Health Organization (2019) states that every 40 seconds someone dies by suicide. Annually, this represents over 800,000 people, more than the number of people who die in conflict and by homicide put together. Every suicide is a tragedy that has long-lasting effects on the people left behind and most cases stem from prolonged mental health issues and abuses that are not reported.
This is the story of Maria Gomez (56), an American citizen, born in Bangladesh, and of her daughter Mila Gomez (25), a mother and daughter duo, who work to raise awareness about mental health amongst young people and teens. Both are survivors of domestic abuse. Mila has also survived attempted suicide.
A PhD from an affluent family, Maria is a distinguished member of her community, having raised mental health awareness in underdeveloped areas of South Asia for the past 14 years. She shared her reasons for stepping into the philanthropic world of empowering women and youth.
Maria completed her education from Toronto, Canada, and after marriage moved back to Asia. She had bases in three different countries due to her work and for running the family business that she and her former husband inherited. She had to travel frequently for work and when she got pregnant her mother in law assured her that she will bear all responsibility for child care and she could go back to work as soon as she feels like. Maria went back to work after three months of childbirth and since then Mila was under the care of her mother in law and sister in law.
They used to live in a joint family of 15 members. Mila was the third child of the family and the first daughter. Maria became pregnant for the second time when Mila was 3 years old but she had a miscarriage and lost the child. The doctors told her that it will be difficult for her to bear any children further. Maria started to notice hostility towards her and verbal abuse from her husband and his family since the miscarriage. It grew worse day by day. As she travelled and spent most of her time in office she tried to cope by finding solace in her work.
For Mila things went from bad to worse. Her health started to deteriorate when she was 6 years old. Malnutrition, anxiety and constantly being sick were common factors. Maria explains to the IPS : “ I was going through the motions and was under the impression that she is a problem child and physically weak. Everyone around me told me that with age, things will get better. She is my first born and my family said that as a mother I am incompetent, and I should invest my time only in my career. As I was always tied up with work, I failed to see how things were at home, and how trauma bonded or bound Mila was at home.”
Maria went on to explain that since her childhood, Mila was shy in public and generally kept to herself. Her only form of expression was through drawings. She used to spend hours in her room scribbling and painting and used to have created vivid drawings of people and occurrences or events. Mila was 13 years old when her distress started to become visible. During her seventh grade, her classroom teacher reached out to Maria expressing concerns about her well-being. She showed Maria some pictures that Mila drew which depicted abuse and scenes where a child is being tortured. After that episode, Maria started to give more attention to Mila and took her to a few doctors and therapists to find the root cause of her stress.
The family did not take her initiative well. Maria and Mila both had to face abuse at home and were threatened. They were forbidden from going to the doctors or for therapy accusing that will ruin the family reputation and that Mila had no mental issues. There have been periods where Mila was denied food if she behaved badly and was locked in her room for days. Maria later found out that Mila was abused verbally and physically on a regular basis by a some members of the family and all they wanted was to keep it a secret. A year later Mila tried to commit suicide by slashing her wrists and was admitted to the hospital. That incident made Maria evaluate her situation and compelled her to take a strong step for ensuring security for herself and for her daughter. She left the family home and traveled back to Canada and filed for divorce.
It has been 16 years since the divorce and Maria and Mila have been living happily away from all negativity. Mila’s health has gotten better with therapy and medication and since the last episodes of slashing her wrists, she did not have any relapse of suicide attempts.
Having faced the ordeal of dealing with an unsympathetic, abusive family, a child who needed support and care, and, dealing with societal pressure, Maria made it her motto of life to spread the word and mission to help others who go through similar situations. Maria founded an organization, working from grass root level to raise awareness of domestic abuse, mental health issues, and for providing youth with a safe space. So far her organization has helped many suicide attempt victims to get back on their feet. They have aided training for job readiness for youth who left their homes because of abuse and cruelty. (Due to the personal nature of the information, the name and location of the organization are being kept anonymous as per request of the interviewee).
Almost one million people die by suicide every year, and it is the third leading cause of death among young people aged 15 to 24. For Mila, extended abuse and subsequent anxiety and depression drove her to attempt suicide on multiple occasions. Sadly, reaching out for help, therapy or proper medical support is still taboo in many countries and societies.
Whilst a link between mental health and suicide is well-established in developed countries, as is the idea of traumatic life experiences, this awareness is still lacking in developing countries. The United Nations and its partners have often drawn attention to different aspects of mental health on the World Mental Health Day (celebrated annually on October 10), but it remains an exceptionally unexplored issue in parts of the world where gender, sexual-orientation and simply being a child, are part of a complex and rigid socio-cultural system that is often unshakeable.
Measures can be taken by individuals and society at large to prevent suicide and suicide attempts. But, without extensive education, resources to lift people out of social preconceptions, and the will of a society to help its constituents, stories like Maria’s and Mila’s will continue to emerge.