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By Giff Johnson

For Marianas Variety

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (May 24) — Skyrocketing suicides in the Marshall Islands are not getting the government intervention and funding support that is needed, say counselors based in Majuro, this central Pacific nation’s capital.

Twenty six Marshall Islanders committed suicide in 2003, a more than 300 percent increase over the eight recorded in 2000.

"If it was 26 AIDS cases, there would be a different level of government interest," said Michael Jenkins, a psychologist who has trained a team of counselors who work in local non-governmental organizations to lead suicide prevention efforts. The Marshall Islands, which has a population of just 55,000, has one of the highest per capita suicide rates in the world, Jenkins said.

"Why should we tolerate having the highest suicide rate in the world?" he asked. While the Ministry of Health has been active and supportive in the battle against suicides, overall government funding and assistance has been lacking, with the Ministry of Health’s Human Services office woefully understaffed to address the problem.

During the 1990s, an annual average of 10.5 suicides was recorded. The first four years of this decade show a leap to an average of 14 per year.

Since the 1970s, the Marshall Islands and other parts of Micronesia have had a high suicide rate among men, primarily in the 15-30 age group. Sociologists and anthropologists believe that the problem has its roots in the rapidly changing urban environments, where young island men, caught between their traditional subsistence customs and an aggressive, American culture, no longer have defined roles in their societies. Nearly all suicides that occur are among males.

Suicide statistics for 2004 indicate that the problem in the Marshall Islands has not abated. Through the end of April, five completed and five attempted suicides were reported by the Human Services office. Often, however, it can be weeks or months for suicides to be reported from remote outer islands to the Human Services office, so these statistics may understate the situation.

In addition, said Jenkins, it is estimated that for every attempted suicide reported, there are at least three that are not reported. Last year, he said, in addition to the 26 completed suicides, there were 42 reported attempted suicides in the country.

In an effort to intervene, a Majuro-based counselors association is sponsoring its second ‘suicide watch’ from mid-May to mid-June, the school graduation period when historically suicides peak.

"If you’re a disenfranchised youth at graduation time you see everyone else getting diplomas," Jenkins said. "Your desire to live goes down." The counselors association has responded to the problem with full page advertisements in the local newspaper, radio and television announcements alerting the community to the availability of counseling services for anyone needing help.

"It works," said Jenkins of the advertising campaign. "In the first day after the ads came out, I had about 20 people ask me for help."

Jenkins said that by 1999, when the suicide rate had declined to just four, the Ministry of Health and local NGOs had an effective prevention system in place to address the problem. After building up a strong program, "unfortunate changes occurred in Human Service and Mental Health programs, the sum of which is that suicide prevention programs were virtually dismantled," he said. "The epidemic which we all worked so hard to contain in the 1990’s had re-occurred by the year 2000."

"Anytime there is a doubling of a number of reported incidents of any social or health problem from one year to another, it is fair to assume that an epidemic is in place," he said of the skyrocketing rate of suicides. "What we are witnessing is not any longer just an epidemic. It is a blood bath."

While some progress has been made at the Ministry of Health to address the problem, to date, effective suicide preventive and responsive programs have not been re-established within the Human Service and Mental Health offices, he said. Most of the intervention work is being done through local NGOs.

It’s critical for the government to throw its weight and funding behind suicide prevention programs to address the epidemic, he said.

May 24, 2004

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