The recent spate of suicides by American celebrities started to be highlighted in 2014 when comedian Robin Williams ended his life. He’d made a career of making folks laugh. When he died, Filipinos noted that one of his wives was the daughter of a Cebuano immigrant to the U.S.
More recent suicides were the globe-trotting chef-storyteller Anthony Bourdain, and handbag designer Kate Spade, who’s mainly known by fashion-conscious women who seem to spend more money on handbags than they do on shoes.
Because Bourdain had visited the Philippines and reported glowingly about Cebu lechon and had mentioned having a Filipina yaya for his daughter, much was written about him in the local press. One Manila correspondent wrote about his having introduced him to sisig, which he apparently enjoyed.
Personally, I believe that if Bourdain, when he decided to give up on life, had been in the Philippines instead of France (where folks guzzle large amounts of wine but aren’t as warm as us Pinoys), he’d still be alive today. This is because he would surely have been surrounded by caring nurses who’d have talked him out of his despair, reminded him to take his meds, and urged him to have more lechon. Such tender loving care is why our nurses are much in demand abroad and have become one of the country’s biggest exports.
A vital question is how many Filipinos have harbored suicidal tendencies and ended their lives over the years, particularly as social and economic factors impinge upon society. As in other countries, Filipinos end their lives for the usual reasons: family problems; adolescent angst; financial troubles; thwarted love; depression over career disappointments; stress and the like.
A study conducted in 2016 for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) showed that among its member states, the Philippines ranked the lowest in suicides. The accuracy of this depends on various factors, especially since mental health problems are difficult to gauge properly in a country where Catholicism exerts a hold on a large portion of the population. The Church has stigmatized suicides, going as far as to disallow them Catholic burials.
Problems of mental health have traditionally been viewed negatively, often tending to be seen as character defects instead of psychological illnesses that can be treated. With depression now known to be mood swings that can be corrected with therapy and drugs, persons in peril of succumbing to extreme acts can be helped by qualified therapists. Unfortunately, such practitioners are available mainly in major Philippine cities and towns, not in outlying areas where depression stemming from poverty and social disparity is prevalent.
Statistics for worldwide figures for 2017 showed that there were close to 800,000 suicides, with an unknown number attempting suicide. Overall, among 200,000, seven males commit suicide, compared to two for women.
There has been a reported increase in young Filipinos ending their lives, according to UCAnews, a Catholic news source which reported this year that six youngsters kill themselves daily. In 2016, 237 children aged 10 to 14 committed suicide. It’s an alarming rate especially since the country’s median age is 23.4 (in a population of 106,503).
As for the older demographic, Professor Clarita Carlos, in her 2017 book Population Ageing in the Philippines, Issues & Challenges, noted that suicide numbers increase as the population ages.
It’s doubtful if any conscience-stricken Philippine government officials guilty of graft have ended their lives because, as a wag once said, “If being corrupt was a reason to kill yourself, there would be no government or business left in this country. “
I know of two prominent Filipinos who took their own lives. The first was Cebuano poet and mystic Homero Veloso who, many years ago, slashed his wrists and bled to death; the other was Jaime Ongpin, the sensitive and cultivated economist who shot himself after he served as finance minister under President Corazon Aquino. Veloso left behind some paintings and a book of his poetry, while Ongpin’s legacy is valued by those familiar with his work of disentangling the morass which Ferdinand Marcos had made of the country’s economic and financial systems. Presumably the two men committed suicide out of deep despondency.
In Cebu where I live, there have been fewer suicides than murders. Two fairly recent ones involved middle-class men: one asphyxiated himself with carbon monoxide in his car, the other (a member of a well-known local family) shot himself in the neck. Police reports did not corroborate whether he used an imported revolver or a locally produced one, which would have been interesting since paltik (homemade) guns were first manufactured in the northern town of Danao where Marcos crony Ramon Durano reigned over his fiefdom for many years.
On July 1 this year a 19-year-old woman jumped off the first Mactan bridge. She was described in the SunStar newspaper as a “guest relations officer” who’d quarreled with her “live-in partner.” A number of men have jumped from that bridge as well in the past. In the four decades since Filipina women went to Hong Kong to work as domestics, close to a dozen have killed themselves. I lived in that pressure-cooker type of city for many years and it was known that the women were driven to desperation by employer abuse, overwork, depression and homesickness.
One interesting case of a supposed suicide involved a Filipino geologist named Michael de Guzman who, back in 1997, was reported to have jumped from a helicopter into an Indonesian jungle after he was found to have colluded in the Canadian Bre-X gold mining hoax. Details of that story appear in a book called The Bre-X Fraud written by two reporters for the Toronto Globe & Mail. It revealed how the Canadian mining company Bre-X Minerals had hoodwinked its investors in one of that country’s biggest mining scams.
Mark Twain once wrote that, “A gold mine is a hole in the ground with a liar on top.” In this case there were several liars: Canadian, Indonesian, Dutch and a Filipino.
Geologist Michael de Guzman had been hired by officials of the company Bre-X Minerals and fell in with their plot to mix an Indonesian mine’s core samples with alluvial gold grains found in some rivers in Borneo. In 1994, a small dealer in Vancouver urged her clients to buy shares in the company, and after a Calgary investment dealer joined Bre-X and used images of gold bars on the Internet, people flocked to buy shares, making investments skyrocket.
De Guzman’s sample-tampering went on for almost three years before Canadian investigators uncovered the scam. When the media and Internet broke the news, pained cries reverberated from stockholders around the world. One Brex-X top official went into hiding as he faced class-action lawsuits in the US and Canada; another sold his shares, banked $42 million, and retired on Grand Cayman Island. One Canadian lawyer who had invested $3 million shot himself in the head.
It’s not known how much Michael de Guzman pocketed just before he reportedly got on a helicopter from which he supposedly jumped into the Indonesian jungle. When he surfaced some years after his disappearance and contacted one of his wives (he had a couple in Indonesia and one in Manila) to tell her he’d deposited some money in her account, that ended the suicide theory. (The Philippine Daily Inquirer ran my pieces on that on February 21, 1998 and August 28, 2005).
Overall, Filipinos are famous for having cheery dispositions even in the direst of times, so statistics on suicide rates could never match those in countries like Japan and Sweden, which are often cited as among the highest in the world. We may be known as the happiest folks on earth even as we continue living under a series of corrupt administrations that possibly started in the late 1940s when Senate President Jose Avelino posed the question “What are we in power for?” Today Filipinos still aren’t sure about the answer to that question.
I think our country should emulate the land-locked kingdom of Bhutan and focus on GNH (Gross National Happiness) instead of GNP (Gross National Product). Leader Jigme Singye Wangchuck came up with that idea back in 1972 to ensure that his people lead equitable lives, have good governance and aim more to be happy than wealthy. We really should do like the wise Bhutanese and not succumb to any thoughts of unceremoniously disembarking from Planet Earth, like that old Australian who recently gave up on life and went to Switzerland to get himself euthanized.
Recent reports said that scientists found our planet’s orbital cycle has veered slightly from the elliptical to the circular. Perhaps the recent suicides in the West were caused by this tilt in the cosmos. But here at home most citizens haven’t given up hope about emerging from poverty, avoiding stray police bullets, and trying to make sense of our government leaders’ insanity.
Back in the 1960s a musical called “Stop the World, I Want to Get Off!” played on Broadway and the West End in London. It mirrored those times, which were as discombobulating as they are today. But here at home a hopeful band of citizens recently marked “Hindipendence Day” to show that they were sick and tired of the grotesqueries of our top officials who regularly mouth platitudes, liberally spout imprecations and obscenities, and increasingly stomp on people’s freedoms.
In the face of all this, Filipinos could easily feel despair and despondency. To obviate thoughts of helplessness that could lead to suicide, it might help to echo Woody Allen’s words: “I’m not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be around when it happens!”
Isabel Taylor Escoda has written about migrant workers, especially in Hongkong where she lived for many years before moving in 2015 to her birthplace of Cebu. She is a contributor to the Philippines Daily Inquirerand her books include Letters from Hong Kong, Pinoy Abroad and two children’s books.