Spate in child suicides worrying trend for Tunisian children: experts

Earlier this week, 11-year-old Aziza was found hanging from a tree in the governorate of Gafsa, southwest of Tunisia

Asma Ajroudi
Asma Ajroudi - Al Arabiya News
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Tunisian experts are warning of a worrying spate in suicides among young children and adolescents in the North African country.

Earlier this week - in the latest case - 11-year-old Aziza was found hanging from a tree in the governorate of Gafsa, southwest of Tunisia, according to local reports.

Her story is almost a carbon copy of an earlier case that sent shock waves through Tunisian society, stealing headlines in November 2014.

Shiraz, 12, who lived in the countryside near the north-central city of Kairouan, hanged herself from a tree after telling her parents she was going to play in the backyard.

“Mother, father, forgive me. I didn’t like going to the dormitory and you insisted I do. I suffered majorly, and I can no longer take the suffering,” she reportedly wrote in a letter.

The commute was too expensive, so Shiraz had to board at the school, where she had claimed she was reportedly mistreated.

A recent report by the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES) put the total number of suicide and attempted suicide cases in 2014 at 203 - 8.9 percent of which were children.

“The danger of such an issue isn’t in the number of cases, but in the effects and consequences,” Aida Ghorbel, child protection specialist at UNICEF Tunis, told Al Arabiya News.

“We have had cases of 18-year-olds committing suicide before, but nine and 12-year-olds, this was shocking for Tunisia, and experts alike.”

Unlike Shiraz, who often expressed her concerns to her family and whose letter summarized her ordeal, many suicide cases in Tunisia remain unexplained, making it difficult for experts to understand the growing issue.

“We cannot discuss the issue of child suicide accurately in the absence of scientific studies,” Ghorbel said.

The FTDES report, which was based on newspaper reports, listed “fear,” “insecurity,” “inability to dream” among the factors that led children, especially in marginalized and poor areas, to take their own lives.

But the issue is not directly related to poverty and is not unique to marginalized areas, explained Ghorbel. “When we speak to victims’ families, they say they [the children] had everything they needed. Poverty is not the chief reason.”

Moez Cherif, a pediatrician and the president of Tunisian Association for the Defense of Children’s Rights, said reasons could “be financial, social, or psychological.”

“Most of the time, suicide occurs among children who are subjected to failure, be it emotional, social, financial or even failure in school.”

The child might then get trapped in a “whirlpool of problems” and begin sending out signs, such as aggressive behavior, isolation, dietary changes etc.., Cherif added.

“Unfortunately, these signs of psychiatric disorder are not taken into consideration and as a result deepen the issue,” he said.

“Self-inflicted violence has also been spreading. And suicide is the final stage of that violence,” said Cherif, adding that the responsibility rested on the shoulders of parents and school staff alike.

Experts suggest that the number of suicide cases was especially high last December, the month when first term grades are released, putting into question family pressure and school performance.

“A large number of Tunisian families today give a big value to school grades. We saw a number of children committing suicide because their grades did not meet their families’ expectations,” said Ghorbel, adding that such tendencies existed before but mainly among adolescents and not children.

The issue of suicide became a hot topic in Tunisia when street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi set himself alight as an act of protest against his treatment by local officials in December 2010, said Mihyar Hamadi, the chief child protection officer at the ministry of women and family affairs. Bouazizi’s death later sparked the beginnings of the Arab Spring in 2011,

But experts say media coverage of the issue makes the media - especially television - complicit in the high figures because of the way it portrays the deaths.

Hamadi said child protection authorities say they have received many complaints from parents concerned with recent television coverage of the issue - especially during prime time shows - which has been suggested might have glorified the deaths.

“We are not against media freedom. But media professionals should consult with experts about the manner in which such an issue should be covered, and even the timing,” Hamadi added.

“Media institutions care more about revenues and thrillers than raising awareness among children and society,” said Ghorbel, adding that a number of the children took their lives after learning about similar cases on some television shows.

“Children today are knowledgeable about what is happening around them through the media and social media networks. They are learning and listening more than in the past, when access to information was limited. And access to information, in my opinion, is one of the reasons behind such an increase,” Ghorbel said.

While a child has the right to access information, the lack of parental supervision and awareness make such a freedom harmful to the child mental wellbeing and could affect his behavior.

“With all the violence, wars, terrorist attacks, armed groups, executions, and crimes that we constantly see on television constitute harmful content for children. And every child deals with such information in their own way,” Ghorbel said.

“Eight-year-olds and nine-year-olds do not differentiate between reality and fantasy. So we see them imitating what they watch,” she added.

“The understanding of death among children and adolescents is different from that of adults, especially now that they [children] deal with the virtual world,” Cherif said. “They think they can delete and start all over again. They don’t think it is the end, they think avoid the end in the last minute.”

But this issue is really reflecting the political, economic and socials hardships the Tunisian society is going through, added Cherif.

“In my opinion, a society with no vision is a society without a future. It is the lack of a vision and ambitions that prompt the youth to illegally immigrate, join terrorist groups such as ISIS, or simply put an end to their lives. They don’t have a vision or a mission.”

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