JLP politicians say tough times force constituents to think of ending their lives; PNP says not so
SOME members of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) hierarchy have charged that the tough economic times that presently prevail in Jamaica have resulted in many of their constituents threatening to commit suicide.
JLP leader Andrew Holness, the party's spokesman on finance and planning Audley Shaw, and veteran members of parliament Olivia 'Babsy' Grange and Dr Horace Chang, all confirmed that they had, at some point, received messages from their constituents threatening to end their lives, mainly because they were under severe economic pressure in the struggle to survive.
But yesterday senior vice-president of the People's National Party (PNP) and Minister of Health Dr Fenton Ferguson, along with minister of state for transport, works and housing, and MP for Clarendon North West, Richard Azan, as well as MP for St Ann North West Dr Dayton Campbell scoffed at the claims, saying that they, personally, had never received suicide threats from their constituents, nor had they heard of any of their colleague PNP MPs getting any.
The JLP MPs, who were guests at last Thursday's Jamaica Observer Press Club, held at the newspaper's Beechwood Avenue headquarters, said that the harsh economic times had forced Jamaicans into a state of despair.
Grange, who showed the Sunday Observer text messages sent to her by her constituents threatening to end their lives, said it was a regular thing for her to get suicide notes from members of her St Catherine Central constituency, mainly women.
"I got two up to last week. Things are so bad, so how do I deal with them? When I get these messages I will either send someone to see the individual or have the persons come to the office and I speak with them to see what we can get out of the system," Grange said.
"In addition to that, I educate them and try to motivate them to the point where I say to them, 'look, work with us to ensure that there is a change'. To give them hope you have to say as a party, as the Opposition, we must work together to ensure that we get rid of this Government and put in a Jamaica Labour Party Government that will ensure that things get better. At least there is hope because we have a record of improving the economy, of stabilising the dollar, and showing more tangible results in terms of addressing people's lives," Grange said.
One of the text messages to Grange's phone read:
"Good morning, Auntie Babsy, I am leaving my daughter in your care. I hope you will help her achieve her goals. I am tired, there is no hope. I tried getting a job and they tell me I am too young. There is nothing I have not tried. I think its best if I take my own life. Please tell my daughter that I love her. All I want is a job."
The young woman, she said, had several CXC subjects, but had not been successful in gaining employment.
"I had to quickly contact her, assisted her with a few items, and arranged counselling for her," Grange revealed, adding that the woman had still not got a job.
Another message seen on Grange's phone stated:
"Ms B, God know me can't tek the suffering no more. Hungry a kill me. Please take your God-daughter because deprivation a kill me and it mek me a think some way me no fi think. Nothing a gwaan. Me woulda tek some food from even a mad man right now. Me get $100 and give me children two Ramen soup fi keep them 'till a morning. Me a suffer."
Holness said that up to recently he had received a message that one of his constituents was planning to take his life because of hardships that he was facing, a matter that Shaw said was also reported to him about one of his constituents when he visited his Manchester North East seat recently.
"I have had a few of those too," Holness said in referring to suicide messages.
"My greatest challenge is to get the people to be patient, to understand how the big picture affects them. It's hard to do when people are suffering; they don't have any water, the roads, crime, all the things that are affecting them. When you say 'listen, we are going to pass the IMF test, we are going to reduce the debt'," Holness said, adding that at no time in his career did he ever feel like walking away from politics as a result of the hardships that people were facing.
"I have moved past sympathy to empathy. When people come to me with their problems, I don't need to be sympathetic. Now I am motivated to change the big picture. MPs have a welfare responsibility, and I try to be as judicious as possible with the resources that are at our direction, and we try to raise funds privately to help a variety of cases," he said.
"What we manage to raise, plus what we use from our pockets would sometimes be equal, if not more, than what resources are allocated to the constituency, because the truth is, MPs should not have a welfare function. MPs should not be distributing welfare, but it is the reality of the situation. Government bureaucracy is not large enough to reach into all constituencies to address the real issues of poverty," Holness said.
"You notice that when I spoke in Parliament and said we are all stressed out, including members of parliament, you could hear a pin drop on the other side," Shaw said, referring to the PNP's response to his budget presentation.
"Well, they clapped, they agreed," Holness interjected.
"I got one suicide note from a constituent up to the other day," Shaw said.
Dr Chang said that the desperation of his constituents had also forced some of them to contemplate suicide as a way out of their economic challenges. Singling out the Flanker community as an example, Dr Chang said that residents were going through tougher than normal encounters.
"The pressure on the inner-city communities is severe. The situation is grief," he said.
However, Dr Ferguson said that he had no knowledge of what his colleagues on the other side of the political divide had cited.
"I have never had that experience," the veteran MP for St Thomas East said.
"In tough times, it would not be unusual to have persons experiencing suicidal tendencies. If it's financial, it impacts on relationships. I would not say it is not possible for persons to express that kind of view in a tough economic environment. A lot of our youth are faced with several issues, like being antisocial, and you see it manifested in schools and in sports in particular. Parenting is a major factor in that.
"In the southern Jamaica region, the Ministry of Health has started a community series, focusing on parenting and health. We intend to do this nationally," Dr Ferguson said.
"If one were to call me and say 'I am going to kill myself', it is something that I would have to take seriously from a point of view of health. I could seek help for that person, because it's not something that you take lightly," he added.
Azan said he was surprised to hear of the claim raised by the JLP big wigs.
"It's the first I have ever heard about anything like that. I have never got a suicide message from any constituent," he said.
Dr Campbell, too, played down the JLP's charge.
"I have never had one, and none of my colleagues in the PNP have ever told me that they had ever got any such message," the medical practitioner told the Sunday Observer.
"We get some trivial requests from time to time, but never suicide messages," Dr Campbell insisted.
Grange is hoping that the situation does not get worse, as other factors, she said, have been creeping into the mix.
"A young man came to me and said 'I just feel like mashing up the town'. So I said 'it doesn't make sense mashing up the town because it's going to make your life worse' and he said, 'well I can't get anything to do'.
"In Central St Catherine, although half of Spanish Town is a part of that constituency, extortion is down, crime is down, violence is down. But then young men have nothing; they have no hope, no job, and youngsters are coming out of school and just hanging on the corner," Grange said.
Holness said that the economic bites that people often feel meant that politicians had to dig deeper to find solutions.
"I don't think people understand. In a day I will have somebody call about medicine. Now, you may not have the funds, but in the back of your mind you say if this person dies because you didn't respond this is forever on your conscience. So wherever you are going to have to find it you have to. There are people in the society who would say it's not your responsibility, but I don't think the people would be asking me if they had a choice," Holness said.
The World Health Organisation in its latest report said that one suicide occurs every 40 seconds worldwide. The global suicide rate is 16 per 100,000, but Jamaica has one of the lowest rates of suicide in the world of 2.26 per 100,000, according to local studies.
Jamaica's suicide figures for 2013 were not available.