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Kenya ranks 27th out of 46 countries in sub-Saharan Africa in terms of a suicide rate per 100,000 people, according to the best available data.

However, the quality of data is a major concern, as the country does not maintain a suicide registry, which is useful for identifying risk factors and developing strategies to reduce suicide. Stigma is another serious concern.

The Daily Nation was wrong in claiming that Kenya’s suicide rate exceeds India’s, but correct that there are more suicides in Kenya than in Mexico.

In October 2023 several cases of suicide were reported in the media in Kenya. A police officer shot himself in his car; a woman jumped off an office building; a man reportedly burned himself alive; and another was found hanging from a tree. In the coastal county of Kilifi, about 500 kilometres south-east of the capital Nairobi, 10 people were reported to have died by suicide in two months.

As Kenyans debated suicide trends, chief justice Martha Koome handed a series of proposed amendments to the country’s penal code to the national assembly speaker.

One of the proposals is to decriminalise “attempting suicide”, currently a misdemeanour punishable by a maximum of two years imprisonment or a fine to be determined by the courts. Koome wants the clause removed.

In October the media also reported that the country’s director of public prosecutions had declined to prosecute a man who had attempted suicide, because it was due to mental illness and “would be akin to punishing a sick person for being sick”.

Suicide is death caused by harming oneself with the intention of dying. Attempted suicide is when someone hurts themselves with the intention of ending their life, but does not die.

Recently the artificial intelligence tools that Africa Check uses to monitor public claims highlighted three claims on suicide. These were made in an article headlined Address suicide epidemic, published the day after World Suicide Prevention Day which is marked every year on 10 September.

We re-examined the claims in light of the public debate around suicide in Kenya.

Claim
In sub-Saharan Africa, Kenya is among the countries with the highest suicide rates.”

Verdict
Incorrect
The writer of the article told Africa Check that her source for this claim was the World Bank.

The bank reports the number of suicide deaths in a year per 100,000 population, citing the World Health Organization (WHO) as the source of the data.

Tarik Jasarevic, a spokesperson for the WHO, referred us to the 2019 suicide estimates from the agency’s 183 member states.

Estimates were derived from modelling data for many countries, including Kenya, which was classified as having a data quality score of four, meaning that “death registration data are unavailable or unusable due to quality issues”.

Modelled estimates are used to indicate prevalence when high quality data is not available. This approach has its weaknesses, but it is preferable to assuming, for example, that there are no suicides.

We asked an expert in Kenya if better data was available.

“We do not have a suicide registry in the country, so we rely on the WHO suicide estimates,” Dr Linnet Ongeri, a psychiatrist and a scientist who has written extensively on mental health and suicide, told Africa Check

She is also an acting deputy director at the Kenya Medical Research Institute.

Suicide registries are databases maintained by countries on suicides and suicide attempts. They also provide important information on demographics, risk factors and trends. The data collected enables countries to identify risk factors and develop ways to improve mental health and reduce suicide.

We checked the WHO’s 2019 estimates, the most recent data, and compared Kenya’s figures with those of the rest of Africa. Jasarevic said that to compare countries, you had to assume a standard population, or that countries had the same distribution of the population across age groups. This is known as the age-standardised mortality rate.

In other words, it adjusts for different age structures in order to compare more accurately how common suicide is among different groups.

Of the 46 sub-Saharan African countries for which data was collected, Kenya ranked 27th, with an age-standardised rate of 11.

At the top of the list were Lesotho, with an age-standardised mortality rate of 87.5 per 100,000 people, followed by Eswatini, with 40.5 and Zimbabwe with 23.6.

There are at least 25 other sub-Saharan countries ahead of Kenya in terms of suicide rates. We therefore rate this claim as incorrect.

Quality of Kenyan suicide data key concern

Kenya’s national police supplies suicide data to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, the national data agency. This is recorded under homicide in the agency’s flagship annual economic survey.

Attempted suicide is a misdemeanour, according to Kenya’s penal code.

Philio Kisaro, a crime data analyst at the national police, said that the police faced challenges in reporting whether a death was a suicide or not for various reasons, depending on the scenario.

These include limited evidence available at the scene, tampering with evidence by third parties and the stigma associated with suicide.

Dr Linnet Ongeri, a psychiatrist and researcher who has studied suicide in Kenya and written extensively on mental health, said the stigma around suicide was very high, making it difficult to collect accurate data.

Suicide is almost a taboo subject because suicidal behaviour is criminalised, she told Africa Check. Culture, religion and politics all play a role in perpetuating the stigma.

Due to the lack of consistent and systematic systems, resulting in under-reporting and misclassification of suicides in Kenya, these figures tend to be lower and do not reflect the true picture, Ongeri said.

Kenya’s suicide prevention strategy 2021-2026 identifies decriminalisation of suicide as a key recommendation to address the burden of suicide in the country.

Claim
“Kenya’s suicide rates exceed rates in India.”

Verdict
Incorrect
According to WHO estimates for 2019, India recorded 173,347 suicides, with an age-standardised rate of 12.9 per 100,000 people.

The data also showed that there were 3,214 suicides in Kenya, a rate of 11 per 100,000 people.

This means that India has a higher rate of suicide than Kenya.

We therefore rate the claim incorrect.

Claim
Kenya’s suicide rates exceed rates Mexico.”

Verdict
Correct
Mexico recorded 6,772 suicides, with an age-standardised rate of 5.3, according to the data.

Conversely, WHO reported 3,214 suicides in Kenya, a rate of 11 per 100,000 people.

This claim is correct.

 

 

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