This summer has revealed a sharp rise in suicides in Gaza

Mental health had become a serious challenge for my generation. Slowly my friends and I have become unofficial counselors for one and another.
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Suleiman al-Ajoury, 23, was a handsome young man and a cherished friend. Over the last three years he found himself unemployed and had no idea how to resume his once modest, yet stable, profession as a carpenter. Like so many young people in Gaza, he was at a standstill personally, out of work with no job on the horizon, all the while our wider environment crumbling around us. Our youth unemployment rate is a staggering 65%. The age bracket that figure encompasses is up to 24.

Then, on July 4, 2020 al-Ajoury killed himself at his home, leaving a message on social media that has since been removed by the platform. He described humiliation and a sense of hopelessness.

His post online led to endless questions among my peers about the reasons why he decided to end his life and opened difficult discussions about disappointment and the conditions people in Gaza live under. 

I can trace his depression to two years ago. He once locked himself inside of his room, isolating and consuming news from around the world on his cell phone. Around that time he joined other disillusioned and disaffected youth and participated in the “We Want to Live Movement,” a short-lived protest movement that sought to end the division between Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Fatah in the West Bank.

The divided Palestinian government has strained the economy in Gaza over the last few years. We are no longer subject to only an Egyptian and Israeli blockade which has ravaged Gaza for 13 years. Since 2018 the Palestinian Authority has adopted its own set of sanctions against Gaza. The combination of these forces makes new construction uncommon; therefore carpentry, al-Ajoury’s talent and trade, became an industry from a bygone era. 

Palestinians youth sit at the beach during sunset in Gaza city on April 15, 2020. (Photo: Ashraf Amra/APA Images)
Palestinians youth sit at the beach during sunset in Gaza city on April 15, 2020. (Photo: Ashraf Amra/APA Images)

Our mutual friend Ala’a al-Jabary, an artist, was the last person who spoke to him. 

“Suleiman was not in my close circle of friends. He used to follow my Facebook page and we met in person for several literary sessions. The day he killed himself, he sent me a text message saying that he wants to talk to me about an urgent matter,” al-Jabary told me.  

“He called me in the evening, he opened so many subjects. I felt that he was confused, and he needed someone to listen to him. He started to talk about an emotional trauma he was going through,” al-Jabary continued, explaining al-Ajoury then killed himself while still on the phone. 

Overcome with grief, al-Jabary didn’t talk to anyone for three days. 

The level of hopelessness among the youth in Gaza is no longer ignorable. Local police now respond a bit differently than they have in the past, as suicide previously was not a public health scare. Today they launch investigations and keep data. Previously, this information wasn’t even officially recorded. 

In researching for this piece, I learned during that entire week in July there were a total of five suicides and two attempted suicides. The same day al-Ajoury died two young people who lived in the al-Shati refugee camp, or “beach camp,” also committed suicide. A few days before, a woman from Rafah City committed suicide as did a schoolteacher from Jabalia refugee camp. I cannot convey how shocking this is. 

The head of media for the ministry of interior in Gaza, Ramzy Abu Elqomsan, confirmed to me the authorities are monitoring the events closely, but there are major obstacles in confirming statistics. Suicide is highly stigmatized in Gaza and many families do not want the death recorded in this manner. 

“The suicide file is among the most important files we follow,” Abu Elqomsan explained. “But we intend to not focus on it in the media because we don’t want to contribute to a phenomenon by keeping it in front of audiences.” 

I followed up with human rights monitors here, the quasi-governmental Independent Commission for Human Rights, or ICHR, and Al Mezan. Both confirmed there are no precise statistics in Gaza for suicides over the last ten years, but anecdotally we know they are increasing. 

Mustafa Ibrahim, the deputy head of the ICHR, said, “The real beginnings of [an increase in] suicides in Gaza was in 2015, and it again increased in 2017.”

I received several contradictory statistics about suicide numbers from governmental and nongovernmental sources. The most reputable figures that I could independently confirm come from Ibrahim, although he too warned, “There’s no accurate statistics for suicide cases in Gaza for the last decade, they’re only approximate numbers because of the government and families’ confidentiality.” 

To the best of his knowledge, since the beginning of 2020, the Gaza Strip witnessed 17 suicide cases. Most alarmingly Ibrahim said his group found as many as five suspected suicide attempts on some days this year, although his organization did not provide cumulative numbers for 2020.

His data shows from 2015 to 2020 each year there were between 15 and 37 suicides in Gaza, of whom half were women or girls. The year with the highest rate, 2017, the ICRC confirmed 87% of the suicides were carried out by Palestinians under the age of 30. That year there were also 759 suicide attempts. 

Around the same time I learned of these figures my friend Amer Balousha, who was a close friend of al-Ajoury, mentioned to me that al-Ajoury had attempted suicide the previous month. There was a similar outcry post on Facebook and Balousha called him and found a weeping al-Ajoury in the process of attempting asphyxiation. 

Balousha, who returned to Gaza from abroad only  seven months before, said that most of al-Ajoury’s close friends have abandoned Gaza and he was feeling alone spending his time communicating with them via phone. Amongst friends, it’s now common to talk about our peers who have managed to escape life in Gaza–either through foreign passports, visas or smuggling networks–and the depression that many struggle with who still live here.

I noticed the shift in 2018 when my friend Muhannad Younis, 24, killed himself. It sparked a series of tender news reports and crystallized that mental health had become a serious challenge for my generation. We are not only living under a siege, but the Gaza Strip has experienced three wars since 2008. Our healthcare system has been in and out of a state of emergency from 2014 on, and that was before the pandemic. Slowly my friends and I have become unofficial counselors for one and another. No one knows the battles each person goes through, but I believe that we can stop others from harming themselves if we listen to and provide emotional care to close friends and family members. 

“Another four friends of mine in Gaza think about suicide, I spend a lot of time talking to them. I’m terrified to wake up one day and hear bad news about them,” Balousha said. 

Muhammad Abu el-Sebah, a psychiatrist in Gaza working on research about suicide told me, “Youth in Gaza have all motives for suicide. There’s poverty, unemployment, and uncertainty about the future.” 

“In addition there are different individual factors, like addiction or emotional crisis,” he added.

His preliminary unpublished findings indicate that one in ten young people in Gaza are in need of urgent psychological intervention and are at risk for suicide. 

If you are thinking about suicide, please call the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme Hotline at 1-800-222-333 or the main line at 082641511. If you are in the U.S. please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255).

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