Alleged Suicide Deaths Amongst Zogos: An Emerging Crisis?

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Zogos and Zogese occupy a unique niche in Liberian history and in our contemporary national life. The legacy of the civil war and the discrimination and stigma that they continue to face is a stark reminder of their lowly social and economic standing in Liberian society.

The reported cases of suicides among this population in recent times can only be appreciated within the wider historical context of a society where this population of drug addicts is on a rise. As a society, we continue to struggle in finding ways to help Zogos and Zogese overcome their adversity.

The extent of suicide rate among drug addicts in Liberia is yet to be examined comprehensively. No concrete data exists on the issue. In the last week or less, two deaths within the Zogos’ and Zogese Community have been labeled as “suicide.” These are worrying signs that warrant thorough investigation. While the status and stature of Zogos and Zogese may not be high in Liberian society, the relegation of their plight might mean trouble for the nation in the long-run. In this article, my goal is to draw a link between the likely mental health diagnosis of Zogos and Zogese; and the growing rate of suicide among this population.

Suicide ideation (thoughts of or preoccupation with suicide), suicide attempts, and suicide deaths are often linked to mental health diagnosis. The likelihood that a person diagnosed with mental illness will commit suicide is high. It is a given that many Zogos and Zogese face alcohol and/or drug use disorders. Should this be combined with such mental illnesses as depression, bipolar disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, their risk of suicide would certainly be high. That, they are not in contact with any mental health professional to enable early detection and prevention of possible suicidal behavior only increases their risk level.

Clearly, numerous studies have continued to link mental health problems and the risk of suicide as well as alcohol and drug use disorders. In the case of Zogos and Zogese, it is fair to say that no such evidence exist of their mental illness, although their possible drug use and alcohol abuse is inferred by many observers. This does not excuse people in the general Liberian population who themselves are at risk of suicide given the pervasive use of illicit substances in the society, and the unresolved traumas from the war and other incidents of violence and communal deaths. But here, the focus is on Zogos given that they are understudied and their lowly socioeconomic status, which explains the gross neglect that they face. 

The death of Zogos and Zogese in Greater Monrovia and Harbel respectively, possibly as a result of suicide could mean that the society has a looming epidemic on its hands. The time has come for the society to ask: Why are many Zogos dying from a possible suicidal fate?

Yes! It is true that when people are under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs, it is possible for them to lose their regular inhibitions and take risks that they usually would not attempt under normal conditions. Or they take these illicit substances to relieve their symptoms of depression, anxiety, or other undiagnosed or untreated mental health conditions.

There is no denying that many Zogos and Zogese get to where they are because “hope” is in very short supply within their lives and they live from “hand to mouth” daily. And so they take the drugs to mask their livelihood challenges, which turn out to make their problems worse. The more that they feel overwhelmed by the vast pressures of life and the painful emotions of the past and present combine, the more they medicate themselves with illicit substances. The vicious cycle continues until the fatal day on which they die accidentally or intentionally.

Their vulnerability to violent death at the hands of themselves or others cannot be overstated. This ugly prospect lives with them daily. In the process, they damage relationships with people through distrusting actions; sometimes stealing from those willing to assist them in their rehabilitation. The hope that things will get better one day, on which many of us survive in difficult times, is often scare among Zogos and Zogese. It is for this reason that treatment and rehabilitation are urgently required for this population. 

Not too many of us in the society know what to do for our relatives when we find them in these difficult circumstances – spiraling out of control into deeper and deeper state of addiction. Many Zogos and Zogese may be hurting as a result of the two deaths reported in the press, but they may not be getting societal sympathy or empathy. This could also be a community in panic, frightened by the prospects of an epidemic emerging amongst them.

Indeed, is the society positioned to help them or would they be left to their own devices? How many of them are having suicidal thoughts or ideation as a result of what has happened? Could fear be palpable among them now? Possibly!  

Someone has to ask the difficult question. What is Liberian society’s recovery plan for the Zogos and Zogese to assure their safety and then address the underlying issues surrounding their addiction? Is Liberia’s public health community – both government and non-governmental organizations going to sit aside as this problem gets worse?

We need a multidisciplinary team of professionals: psychologists, social workers, mental health practitioners, psychiatrist, public health professionals, and law enforcement officers, researchers to join hands to address this menace before it runs amok. Preventing this problem from getting out of control requires a multifaceted approach, but it hinges on the government taking a bold step to face this public policy challenge which threatens the stability of the society.

Zogos’ and Zogese’s rehabilitation will require resources (human and financial) to enable their reintegration, but it is not a responsibility that society (government and donors) can shy away from or take lightly. A significant shift has to occur in our criminal justice, social welfare, and mental health systems simultaneously where drug offenses do not merely end up with incarceration, but with care and treatment and a conversion of users into productive members of society. Only then will the interventions be transformational.  

Opinion by Emmanuel Dolo, Ph. D.

 

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