Bangladeshi Christians gather for a Mass to be held by Pope Francis in Dhaka on Dec. 1, 2017. There has been a rise in suicides among Christians in the Muslim-majority country. (Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP)
To his friends, Richard Gomes (not his real name) was a humble and friendly person, although a bit shy and introverted.
The 33-year-old Catholic worked for a private firm, loved photography and hung out with friends when he got some time. He planned to marry his girlfriend this December.
Now, all this has become a thing of the past. On the night of March 24, Gomes hanged himself at the residence in central Dhaka where he had been living with his elder brother’s family. His body was taken to his village home in Gazipur district and was buried on March 27.
The tragic end of a young life shocked his family, relatives and friends, and rumors floated over the possible causes of his suicide.
While some people pointed to a possible breakdown in his relationship with his girlfriend, some of his friends alleged that Gomes had been depressed for some time due to “dominance and psychological abuses” in the family.
“He was a lovely person and it is unbelievable to accept that such a man has committed suicide,” a close friend told UCA News on condition of anonymity, noting that during a recent visit he noticed Gomes was visibly depressed.
“It is true he was depressed. We may never know the real cause, which has also vanished with his life,” he said.
Gomes' family declined to talk to UCA News about the tragedy.
He became the 12th Christian, mostly young, to commit suicide in Bangladesh since 2019, according to church sources.
In February 2019, a 14-year-old Catholic girl from the northern Rajshahi region committed suicide by hanging.
The girl’s father, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the family are still grieving but remain clueless even a year after the death of their eldest daughter.
“We never imagined that our daughter could choose such a tragic path. As parents we have been both caring and dominating to keep our children on the right track in life. Maybe she had a hidden pain that she failed to share with anyone, and thus killed herself,” the father, a day laborer, told UCA News.
While Christians are a small minority in Bangladesh, the suicide trend is relatively high among them, according to Dr. Edward Pallab Rozario, former secretary of the Catholic bishops’ healthcare commission.
“Young people in our community are most vulnerable to suicide, and in most cases the cause is an imbalance between what they desire and what they get. In this busy modern time, family and social bonding have weakened, which reduces the space for young people to share their problems and find acceptable solutions,” Rozario, director of health at Catholic charity Caritas Bangladesh, told UCA News.
Rising psychological instability and suicides
In recent times, there has been a rising number of suicide cases in this South Asian Muslim-majority country of more than 160 million.
On average, about 11,000 people, the majority of them young, commit suicide in Bangladesh every year, according to Anikder Jonno Udyog (Initiative for Aniks), a social movement for suicide prevention.
Every day about 30 people commit suicide in the country, according to data from Bangladesh police.
Suicides often result from trivial matters such as failure in love, marriage and academic life as well as from unemployment and family disputes, activists say. Some suicides are linked to drug abuse and childhood traumas.
Suicide is a global phenomenon that kills more people than any other natural or man-made calamity like warfare. About 800,000 people commit suicide every year or one person every 40 seconds in the world, according to the World Health Organization.
“Suicide is nothing new but it has increased in recent times. Our society and state are going through unstable situations, which affects our families and children. Young people are unable to cope with growing pressures and are too afraid of an uncertain future,” Shah Ehsan Habib, a professor of sociology at Dhaka University, told UCA News.
While extended families have broken down to make way for nuclear families, parents often fail to ensure proper upbringing of many children and young people, Habib said.
“Parents run after jobs and personal lives and they don’t have enough time to spend with their children. There are few open spaces in the city to roam and play. As a result, children grow up without proper guidelines, easily find themselves worthless and break down psychologically when they face problems,” he added.
Efforts to improve psychological well-being
Besides little effort to address the social and family causes of suicides, there is also a scarcity of facilities and services to ensure good mental health of people vulnerable to suicide.
National emergency hotline 999 receives hundreds of calls regarding suicide attempts and transfers them to the state-run National Institute of Mental Health.
Kan Pete Roi (Waiting to listen to you) is a Dhaka-based organization offering counseling to possible suicide victims. It also runs hotline numbers to assist those in need of emotional support.
Anikder Jonno Udyog runs awareness campaigns for the mental well-being of children and students in various districts.
The Church and Caritas also run programs for children and young people to draw them away from psychological distress, says Rozario of Caritas. However, the efforts are not often organized and not up to the mark to ensure the well-being of young people, he said.
“Today, our families and the clergy are both busy. Sometimes people don’t have time to go when the Church invites, and sometimes people don’t have adequate access to the Church. We need to change that so that people can share when they are stressed out,” Rozario added.
Our Lady of Sorrow nun Sister Lipy Gloria Rozario has been offering counseling to various groups of people since 2010 through Healing Heart Counseling Unit, a psychological support center funded by her religious order.
“Globally, mental well-being is a burning issue, but in Bangladesh mental health is not taken seriously, so we often face trouble in having access,” Sister Rozario, director of the center, told UCA News.
The center is implementing a three-year project in collaboration with Dhaka Archdiocese for the mental well-being of 9,000 students and their parents in 20 church-run education institutes.
“We have already reached out to 3,500 students through workshops in the first phase, and the second phase will start in July. We hope to continue it on a regular basis so that we can teach students as well as parents how they can maintain good mental health,” the nun said.
Drastic changes have taken place in the mindset of people, especially among young people in recent times, Sister Rozario said.
“Children and young people are unable to regulate their emotions and they cannot come to terms when there is a dispute in the family or if they have failed in something. Our society and family do not provide them with enough space to discuss and share, which we have been trying to address,” the nun added.