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Rise in Malawi Suicide Cases Linked to COVID-19

FILE - People queue to wash their hands to protect against the coronavirus before lining up to vote at a polling station, in Lilongwe, Malawi, June 23, 2020. The COVID pandemic has led to a spike in suicides in the southeastern African country.

Malawi has recorded a 57% increase in suicides since the start the coronavirus pandemic. Psychologists blame loss of hope in dealing with social distancing and economic problems from COVID-19.

Emily Luangwa recalls how her brother was under pressure to repay a loan from his creditors before he took his own life in August.

She says because of COVID-19 his business was not running normally. Due to pressure from creditors, she says, he tried to sell some farm produce but it was not enough to meet the amount we borrowed. She says that forced him to hang himself from a tree next to his garden.

Luangwa said the deceased left a note that he decided to take his life because he could not cope with the pressure from creditors who threatened to confiscate his property within seven days.

Stories like that are an example of the reason suicide rates have surged in Malawi this year.

Peter Kalaya is deputy national spokesperson for Malawi Police Service.

“Records that we have from various police stations show that in 2019 during this period, 116 people killed themselves while this year, 2020, a total of 182 people have killed themselves, meaning that there is a 57% increase,” he said.

According to Kalaya, men top the list.

“I should also mention here that a lot of men are killing themselves more than women, because out of these figures, it shows that 92% of people who are committing suicide are men while the remaining 8% are women. This is a concern to us as the police,” Kalaya said.

Betchani Tchereni, a lecturer in economics at the University of Malawi, says unemployment is a big factor.

“With the COVID-19 issue, you will find that some people have lost their jobs. Think about the numbers, 270,000 person losing jobs. That is translating to about 2.7 million people being in trouble because one job in Malawi serves about 10 people per household. So, if they lose hope and enter into depression, it leads to a worst scenario of suicides being committed,” Tchereni said.

Dr. Moses Muotcha, a clinical psychologist at the Kamuzu College of Nursing, believes the rise in suicide cases is largely because of a lack of coping skills to deal with the social and economic problems caused by COVID- 19. Muotcha said that is why men, who are largely breadwinners in many families, are topping the list of suicides.

“Women when they are faced with problems, they are able to talk it out. You know, most of the time, they reach out to their friends. Whereas men, with our culture that men don’t cry, they don’t reach out for help. So, if they have no means of getting food or bread to the family, they think that the best is to just commit suicide,” he said.

Muotcha also said Malawi's shortage of mental health experts and institutions is a challenge for the country - one of the poorest in Africa. Malawi has only one public mental hospital, and the few mental health experts in other hospitals are overburdened.

Police spokesperson Kalaya says the police are trying to help out with its Victim Support Unit, which he said has well-trained officers, who are counseling people on psychosocial matters.