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What causes somebody to take their own life? Stories from Azerbaijan

How not to succumb to hopelessness

Aysha

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t was one of those days when you think to yourself: ‘I should not have gotten out of bed at all.’ The morning had already gotten off to a bad start – some petty troubles were raining down from all sides. Aysha could hardly wait until the end of her classes. After, she went out and wandered around the spring city for a while. Finally, she headed home, hoping to lock herself in her room and spend the rest of the day reading books – Fitzgerald and Remarque’s characters were not just the best, but the only true friends for the 15-year-old schoolgirl.

When she got home, she found herself in the thick of a scandal involving her parents. It was the 1990s, the Soviet Union had just collapsed, people were overwhelmed with routine and financial problems, which couldn’t but affect the overall situation of their family.

Naturally, her parents loved her and they didn’t mean to insult her. But human nerves aren’t made of steel, are they? She had to listen to her parents’ rant about how normal girls never hung around god-knows-where for 2 hours, that she is an ungrateful daughter and that she would surely fail her entrance exams and would become a street sweeper. And all the aforesaid was put in the most colourful phrases that her mother, a philologist, and her father, a philosopher, were capable of formulating. Aysha didn’t say anything. She just went to the bathroom and closed the door with a hook. She could still hear her parents shouting. They were squabbling with each other again. She took out a pack of ‘Rapira’ razor blades. She was absolutely sure that nobody in the world needed her, and that she didn’t need herself either.

An old new problem

Suicide hadn’t featured among the particular problems of the Azerbaijani community up until early 2017 when the country saw a rapid-fire succession of suicides that received wide publicity.

The highest-profile suicide case was that of Dayanat Rzayev, a prominent psychologist, who was found hanged in his own apartment.

The very fact that it was a psychologist, rather than a ‘regular Joe’, who had put a halter round his neck, was perceived as an ominous sign.

Having gained some insight into the matter, people have paid attention to the fact that several dozen more suicides were committed in Azerbaijan in the first few months of 2017. The scope of the ‘suicide pandemic’ will be more visible at the end of the year, when it will be possible to compare this year’s rates with those of the past years. But so far it seems that people have, sort of, just started noticing the problem and have started discussing it. Many have seen the reason behind it in the financial crisis and in a decline in the average Azerbaijani’s living standards – three devaluations over a year and a half have come as a too heavy blow to some people.

According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) data, 80 000 people around the globe commit suicide annually. However, those rates aren’t the ‘ultimate truth of the highest instance’, since each country keeps statistical records differently. Also, sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between suicide and accident.

Nevertheless, the WHO and other international organizations regularly draw up world suicide ratings. For several years now, Sri Lanka has been on top of the mournful ‘top chart’. Azerbaijan has ended up at the bottom of the list in 2018, ranking 158th out of the 177 countries. 327 suicide cases were reported in Azerbaijan in 2016. There are no official stats for the past year and a half.

On a side note, Antigua and Barbuda, a twin-island country, lying between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, has the lowest suicide rate. So, now you know where the world’s happiest people live.

‘I’m not insane, am I?’

The National Mental Health Center was established in Baku in 2012, offering free-of-charge psychological and psychiatric assistance to people.

“The corridors here are crowded with people, and that’s good,” says Kamala Talibova, the Head of the Emergency Psychological Aid Department:

“People have been turning to our centre more often nowadays. However, for some reason, it seems to journalists that this implies an increase in the number of potential suicides. Nothing of the kind! It just means that more people have been applying for psychological assistance. In fact, it’s a positive rather than a negative indicator. Just recently, many people would argue as follows: ‘Why should I visit a psychologist, I’m not insane, am I?’ “

The Center’s patients, who intended or already attempted to commit suicide, are predominantly individuals aged between 20-45, comprising both genders. It turns out that men and women greatly differ from each other even in their attitude to death.

Men have lower tolerance for crisis situations and they commit suicide more often. Women have twice as many suicide attempts as men, but they rarely complete them. Afterwards, many of them admit that it was just a ‘demonstration’, aimed either to frighten, for example, a spouse or attract attention to oneself. And even if a suicide attempt had been quite serious, at the end it sometimes turns into a dark humour comedy, about which a woman would tell her friends laughing. Like, for example, Saida Mustafayeva, 36.

The benefits of epilation

It happened after yet another quarrel, the 364th so far with her husband. He slammed the door and left. Saida thought that she could no longer live like that and that it was high time to cut her veins. So, she made up her mind and started looking for a razor blade.

“The thing is that we don’t keep ordinary razor blades at home. I usually attend laser hair removal sessions, while my husband uses an electric razor. I turned the cabinet drawers upside down and finally found a Gillette disposable razor. Then, for another half an hour I was trying to remove the blade. While doing so, I broke it into small pieces.”

All the aforesaid slightly lessened Saida’s suicidal zeal, but she sat down at the kitchen table anyway and started executing her plan, equipped with the largest blade fragment.

“I knew that it should be cut vertically, rather than horizontally, just like in the movies. I was cutting and cutting… or, to be more precise, scratching. Damn, it hurt! And that somehow sobered me up. One thing is to die beautifully and quickly, so as to make that jackass suffer all his life, but suffering yourself, shredding your hand, and all that in vain is quite another thing. I’m probably too weak to kill myself. And thank God for that.”

Saida carefully treated and put a band-aid across her slashed hand. Then she had a glass of gin with coke and waited for her husband’s return, so as to show him with renewed vigour ‘who’s the boss here’.

Suicide as a way out of a financial deadlock

Except for mental disorders, suicides are always committed by people experiencing a crisis, be it existential, family, love, or that of the age of transition. And, certainly, financial.

However, those who apply to the Mental Health Center are mostly people with some personal, rather than material problems. Maybe the latter just don’t believe that psychologists can help them, though a man once came to the centre requesting them to pay his debt. On a side note, Kamalya Talibova claims that the Center can render assistance to such people as well. Of course, they can’t give them money, but they can find a lawyer to withstand the bank’s pressure.

Agshin Samadov, 43, had long been thinking about starting up his own business. After a long-awaited child was eventually born into the family, he, having considered all the pros and cons, finally took out a bank loan, leased a facility abutting his house and opened an auto parts store. Being a driver, he didn’t read the contract through carefully and didn’t pay any attention to the provisions, under which he would have to pay off his debt at the current USD exchange rate. Moreover, few people cared for the exchange rate at that time.

However, a few months later, the first wave of devaluation took place. The US dollar increased almost twice in value, while the Manat, consequently, dropped sharply. The store stopped bringing in normal profits. There was nothing to pay off the loan with, while the amount of payments increased.

For half a year, Agshin had been terribly depressed, he’d looked sad and thoughtful, and once, in the middle of the working day, he just left the store to his nephew and went to the WC at the far end of the yard. His next of kin didn’t immediately realize that he was missing. Evenually when they did, Agshin was already hanging with a noose around his neck.

Agshin’s wife, who all of a sudden became a widow with a three-year-old child, also had to go through a terrible scandal, kicked up by her husband’s relatives. Her mother-in-law and sister-in-law blamed her for everything, saying that she had ‘driven’ him to that.

Emotions gradually subsided, and Agshin was buried. It took his son quite long to realize that it wasn’t either a joke or a game, and that his dad would never return. Also, Aghsin’s brother-in-law, who stood as his guarantor, is still paying off that ill-fated loan (he even had to sell part of his land plot for that purpose).

“The most regrettable thing is that he owed the bank just USD 6 000,” says one of Agshin’s relatives. “Of course, it’s not a small amount, but he shouldn’t have hanged himself, it wasn’t worth it. If he had asked his relatives for help, we would have managed something, would have collected that damn money somehow. But he kept everything bottled up, he didn’t share it with anyone, and here’s where it has led him to.”

Ilham and Fariza Allahverdiyev, newlyweds, who died on 20 January 1990, when the Soviet troops shot down the civilians in Baku. Ilham was killed on the day of the tragedy, and Fariza committed suicide a few days later. Their wedding day was declared as the Lovers’ Day in Azerbaijan, a kind of alternative to Valentine’s Day.

The way out

A crisis is a deadlock, whether real or illusionary, from which people don’t see any other way out but to ‘pull the stop chord’. Though, in fact, more often than not, even an impasse has a way out. But there should be someone to show it to you. Therefore, when speaking about suicide prevention methods, psychologists, first of all, call on people to be more attentive to each other, so as not to miss any ‘SOS’ signals from a relative or friend. And this signal is given almost always, because even a person who has already decided to commit suicide, still hopes for salvation. So, you might still be able to help them.

There is a so-called ‘risk group’, which includes the most vulnerable, and, therefore, more suicidally-inclined people. These are for example teens, LGBT-community members and underprivileged individuals.

Another representative of the aforesaid risk group was Isa Shahmarli, a notorious Azerbaijani suicide victim. Shahmarli, a young chairman of the ‘Free LGBT’ public organization, was found hanged in 2014. The suicide case received wide public resonance and was regarded as a kind of a protest act.

During the man’s funeral in one of Baku’s settlements, some locals even attempted to stone the mourning procession to prevent Isa’s burial in the local cemetery, regarding it as blasphemous. It wasn’t that they were against suiciders, but they were very much against homosexuals.

Suicide and Islam

On a side note, like all Abrahamic religions, Islam also views sui cide as the greatest sin. According to the Quran, life is granted to a human being by Allah, and only Allah can take it away. However, this ban has no impact on funeral ceremonies.

Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, a philosopher-theologian:

“Although a suicide victim commits a sin, he/she should be buried with due observance of all relevant rituals, so that Allah would forgive their sin. A true, conscious faith and a fear of God’s wrath, in general, can prevent a person from taking such a fatal step as suicide. Statistics show that countries with strong religious beliefs have lower suicide rates. I think that the increased number of suicides in the present-day world, is, among others, related to the fact that in the modernism and postmodernism era, many people lost their faith and stopped thinking of their soul, as well as of what awaits them after death”.

Teens: offline suicide

There aren’t any online teen communities focusing on suicide issues, similar to Russia’s ‘Blue Whale’, in the Azerbaijani segment of the Internet. The teens here die alone, in the same old way, opting for suicide by themselves, rather than collectively through the Internet. The motives behind their decision are also as old as time: loneliness, misunderstanding, pressure and abusive treatment in the family, first love heartbreak etc.

The problems are further aggravated by the conservativeness and patriarchal nature of the majority of the Azerbaijani families, where a girl would never go and complain to her mother about some problems with her boyfriend, whereas a boy would never share his adult-related problems with his father. Certain themes are simply tabooed in such families. In rural areas, girls, who are forced into marriage, frequently commit suicide.

However, it’s true that the situation has slightly improved in recent times. More parents nowadays are being more sensitive and have a more caring attitude to their child, instead of beating them on occasions, they just take them to a psychologist – at least, they do so in the capital. That’s what Solmaz did when her 12-year-old son started experiencing puberty-related psychological problems (inexplicable fits of shame, panic attacks). Solmaz and her husband both grew up in a small town, they didn’t have higher education and they have a rather traditional family. This, however, didn’t prevent them from grasping and quickly responding to the situation. They turned to a psychologist for assistance. A year has passed and the boy is completely recovered now. He has even gotten engaged in his first romantic relationship with a girl.

Accidental suicide

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here is probably only one category of suicides, when chances to rescue a person are reduced to a minimum. These are suicides committed in the heat of passion, in a fit of anxiety or panic. If a person is stopped at that moment, he/she will soon regain composure and will never try it again. However, it’s as impossible to foresee such a heat of passion, as an earthquake. One may only happen to be nearby by chance. It happens sometimes that absolutely trouble-free people, without any mental disorders or even more serious problems, pass away like this.

Gulnara khanum was 55. She, like any other human being, had gone through many hardships in her life. But at that very period, everything was fine. She’d found a pretty well-paid job, her only daughter successfully got married, and she had found some new hobbies.

The only thing that slightly engloomed her life was the need to take care of an elderly aunt with a full set of corresponding diseases, including dementia. There were some troubles with her every day, and, no matter how much Gulnara khanum liked her, she lost her patience and took it out on her.

That evening, the aunt burned the dinner that she wanted to warm up. Being tired after a long day, Gulnara khanum lost her temper and yelled at her. When the aunt tried to rectify her ‘deed’, her niece pushed her away, but she miscalculated her strength. So, the woman fell down, hit her head and was lying on the floor, showing no sign of life. As she was pretty sure she’d killed her own aunt, Gulnara khanum wrote a suicide note, telling about what had happened, and afterwards drank vinegar essence. It turned out that her aunt just fainted, and was later taken to a hospital and recovered.

It was Gulnara khanum’s daughter who found her mother’s body. If she had returned home earlier, things could have turned out differently. The Police that came to the incident scene immediately suspected the young lady of murder. So, afterwards, she was interrogated on a number of occasions. Fortunately, she had an alibi for the time of her mother’s death: she was in a shop, seen by many. As for the aunt, the young lady took her place and was looking after her, as her mother had done before.

The Maiden Tower, a symbol of Baku. As the legend goes, a young lady, whose father intended to marry her, committed a suicide by jumping from the top of this tower. After the tower became a popular place for local suicides,plastic fencing was installed at the sightseeing platform here.

20 years after

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ysha is 39 now. She is a mother of twin boys. She is a self-composed and reasonable young lady, teaching English in a prestigious private school. A scar on her left arm is barely visible, and that saves her from too many unwanted questions. She buried that story in the farthest reaches of her memories a long time ago. She herself could hardly believe now that once her father was breaking the bathroom door, while her mother was calling for an ambulance. And also, how the doctor was irritated when he found out that nobody was dying, and that he just wasted his time. When leaving, he grumbled that the reason he’d studied seven years at the institute wasn’t to bandage up a foolish girl who couldn’t even properly commit suicide. Though he was sort of reassured by a ‘baksheesh’, which he received for not reporting the incident to the police, as prescribed by law.

“I find it shameful, rather than unpleasant, to recall that story. Only a person at the age of 15 could probably come up with such an idea. It seems it didn’t happen to me. No, I can’t say that I’ve drawn some global conclusions from that. But I have never reproached those who did such thing. I know, what it’s like.”


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