On Tuesday, 29 August, Mohannad Younis swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills and ended his life.
He was only 22 and seemed to have much going for him. A budding author, he had recently completed a series of short stories and just put the finishing touches on a stage play – Escape.
Mohannad was only two months from finishing a postgraduate degree in pharmacy at Al-Azhar University, and was planning to propose to a fellow student at the faculty of medicine.
His suicide, therefore, came as a shock to those who knew him and loved him.
I know. I was his friend. I mourn him. I miss him. And I am angry at what he did.
But Mohannad’s decision to take his life is less unusual that it might once have been in Gaza, where tradition and religion frown upon suicide.
In fact, 2016 saw a spike in the number of suicides and suicide attempts in the Gaza Strip, one that has authorities so worried, Gaza’s Ministry of Health decided to cancel fees for anyone needing treatment after a failed suicide attempt and offer free counseling.
According to Gaza’s police department, where such numbers are registered, there were 17 suicides in Gaza in 2016 and 80 attempts. It’s not a lot compared to Gaza’s two million-strong population, but it marked a significant increase from 2015, when there were just five recorded suicides and 35 attempts.
Psychologists don’t have to reach far for an explanation.
“People are trapped in all areas of life,” said Muhammad Abu al-Sabah, a psychologist with the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme and neuroscientist who also runs a private clinic. Abu Al-Sabah was referring to the blockade on Gaza imposed by Israel and Egypt.
“People’s aspirations to travel, work and study abroad have been shattered. There are no job opportunities and no prospects for a better life.”
Over time – and the closure on Gaza has now lasted more than 10 years – this isolation along with the intense violence that has been visited upon Gaza in three separate Israeli military assaults have increased rates of depression and exacerbated already existing psychological problems like personality disorders, Abu al-Sabah said. Both are likely to lead to exactly the kind of increase in rates of suicides and suicide attempts that Gaza is witnessing.
According to one well-placed source in the Ministry of Health who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, 2017 is on course to be even worse. The source said hospitals have received on average some 20 suicide attempts a month this year.
The profile of those attempting or committing suicide also seemed to fit a pattern, according to the source. Some 80 percent are in the range of 17 to 28 years old, and some 60 percent are degree holders. Of those attempting suicide around 60 percent are women.
Young people are particularly vulnerable, said Abu al-Sabah. “Young people have little hope for the future. They have no support to start their careers or continue their education. And at an age where they want to try something new, they have no possibility to do so.”
One impediment to understanding the pervasiveness of the suicide problem is that families are traditionally reluctant to talk about what is a cultural and religious taboo. Families feel community peer pressure not to admit that relatives have attempted to take their own lives.
In a small village west of Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip, twins Samar and Salem, 24, did agree to talk about what led to their joint suicide attempt. The brother and sister insisted that their family name not be published, fearing the judgment of their community.
The siblings had both graduated with a degree in business administration from the Islamic University of Gaza with good grades. After trying and failing to find work in Gaza, they decided to try to pursue a postgraduate degree in Europe.
“We come from a poor family,” said Samar. “We found no job opportunities in Gaza and when our dreams collapsed at the gates of Rafah, we despaired at ever being able to provide for our family.”
The twins fell into a depression. “We cannot provide for our family and they cannot provide for us,” said Samar. “Our community cannot help us. Death seemed better than a life trapped here.”
They made a pact and one day in the middle of last year they both took an overdose of antidepressant and sleeping pills that could have killed them had their father, Said, not noticed the missing pills, found the siblings and alerted relatives and neighbors who came to their aid at the last moment.
Said, 48, still fears for them, however. The one-time construction worker, whose work is intermittent at best and who has seen job opportunities dwindle with Gaza’s besieged economy, said he worries they will try to kill themselves again.
“I hope I can provide my children a job opportunity or provide them anything. I fear I am going to lose them on a dark moonless night. Gaza has destroyed me and now it is destroying my hardworking children.”
Repeated suicide attempts
Muhannad Iyad tried once to take his own life. He then tried a second time and then a third. Perversely, the 22-year-old medicine student might be considered incredibly lucky. In the space of one year, Iyad cut his wrists, hanged himself and took an overdose of pills. On each occasion he was discovered at the last moment and treated in time.
He puts his depression down to a combination of his political engagement, which led to a deep despondency over Gaza’s prospects, and stress over his studies at the Islamic University.
“I failed my first year. Politics came to dominate my life. It got under my skin. I just wanted to end my misery.”
After the third attempt his family reacted and with some assurance. They secured Iyad a scholarship to attend the Jordan University of Science and Technology in Amman, and also managed to obtain a permit for him to leave Gaza – one that set them back $3,000 in cash to Egyptian and Palestinian officials to smooth his passage.
The move has changed him.
“I never think about suicide now,” he said, boasting that he is now top of his class. “The atmosphere in Gaza dragged me to the bottom. Now I am focused on completing my education so I can go back and help my family and my depressed city.”
True to all
In Gaza there are many reasons to lose the will to live just as was the case with Mohannad Younis. There are few prospects for a better life.
Here, we can educate ourselves, but can find no employment. We live in a prison forgotten and neglected by the world. We have all lost loved ones, friends or relatives to violence that we are both powerless to combat and unable to escape.
But suicide is also personal. Mohannad’s parents divorced when he was just 2 years old. As he grew up, he tried to establish a bond with his PhD-holding father, but, for whatever reason, this did not work out.
Whether that was the cause or just one trigger, it plunged Mohannad into a depression. Writing seemed almost like therapy for him. He wrote about Gaza, its problems and its miseries. But he ultimately lost faith – in Gaza, in his family, in himself.
I have battled with depression too. I feel suicide is a cowardly act.
But maybe that is just when I think about it in the abstract. I saw the battles Mohannad engaged in with himself. I know I have nothing but love and respect for him.
Mohannad had a character so pure his friends would always describe him as true to everyone except himself.
Hamza Abu Eltarabesh is a freelance journalist and writer from Gaza.