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'Nobody Understands Me': Kazakhstan's Alarmingly High Suicide Rate Rises Amid Pandemic

Suicide rates have risen in oil-rich Kazakhstan amid forced social isolations and uncertainties about the future. (illustrative photo)
Suicide rates have risen in oil-rich Kazakhstan amid forced social isolations and uncertainties about the future. (illustrative photo)

Aqmaral tries to maintain a positive attitude and not let "problems" hold her back or drive her to despair. But focusing on the positives hasn't always been easy for the 19-year-old student from Southern Kazakhstan Province.

Two years ago, Aqmaral attempted suicide after a bitter fight with her parents, who wouldn't let her date a boy in her class.

Aqmaral felt "humiliated" when her younger sister heard them arguing.

"I believed that nobody wanted to understand me, so I tried to end my life with an overdose of some pills," Aqmaral says. Her parents discovered her in time and rushed her to the hospital.

"I appreciated life when I realized that I was near death," Aqmaral recalls. "I didn't want to die."

Since trying to end it, Aqmaral says that, with her family's support and many months of counseling, she has learned "to be patient" and accept problems as temporary and inevitable elements of life.

Kazakhstan, an oil-rich Central Asian nation of nearly 19 million people, has one of the 20 highest suicide rates in the world at around 17.6 per 100,000 of the population.

A significant portion of those attempts are by adolescents and people in their 20s.

The rates are much lower among its neighbors: Kyrgyzstan (7.4), Tajikistan (4.3), Turkmenistan (5.7), and Uzbekistan (8).

Suicide rates were high in Kazakhstan even before the coronavirus pandemic. But official statistics indicate that cases have increased in recent months, both among adults and the young.

In the first quarter of this year, 1,625 people attempted suicide in Kazakhstan. More than 1,000 of them died.

Police say they've recorded 248 suicide attempts by young people, 84 of them fatal. That far outpaces 2020, when police reported about 300 such attempts all year – 144 of them fatal.

Experts says that pandemic-related social isolation and uncertainties about the future have adversely affected people's mental health, potentially contributing to the increase in suicide attempts. But they point out that suicide is a complex issue, with a vast array of underlying factors.

Support, Understanding

Anna Kudiyarova, director of the Psychoanalytical Society of Kazakhstan, says that feelings of loneliness, hopelessness, uselessness, and social exclusion are among the factors that may contribute to suicidal thoughts.

"Such feelings can cause depression," Kudiyarova says. "The person affected by suicidal behavior thinks that it's better to die than be tortured with such thoughts. For them, suicide seems like the only way out of what they think is an unsolvable problem."

Experts warn that parents and teachers should pay attention to any sudden behavioral changes in children. (illustrative photo)
Experts warn that parents and teachers should pay attention to any sudden behavioral changes in children. (illustrative photo)

They need support from their family or other people close to them, who must approach the situation with understanding and patience, she warns.

"Children affected by suicidal thoughts believe that their problem is unfathomable while they are small and helpless themselves, so adults need to be patient with children," says Kazakh psychologist Svetlana Bogatyreva.

"Under no circumstances should their problem be ignored. Talk to them, help them to lay it all out, and convince them that the problem will be solved," she says.

Aqmaral knows as much from her own experience. When she was in the hospital recovering from her suicide attempt, she felt relieved that her parents didn't criticize her.

Instead, they tried to explain to the teenager that "life is not without problems" and she "needs to be patient."

"Some people think it's easier to die than trying to solve their problem. Now I know, it's wrong," Aqmaral says.

'I Thought It Was My Fault'

Twenty-three-year-old Tolkyn says she tried to end her own life in her late teens because she felt unable to cope with what she now knows was an unfounded sense of guilt.

Tolkyn was 12 when her best friend committed suicide, and no one appeared to know the reason. Tolkyn was the last person to have seen her friend alive.

Tolkyn spent years convinced that if she had stayed longer with her friend, the tragedy would never have happened. She felt guilty.

She turned from an outgoing high achiever at school "into an introvert." Her school performance suffered, too.

Tolkyn says she never spoke to anyone about her anxieties.

She says that "other problems, such as unrequited childhood love" and her unhappiness with her own appearance, added to her anxiety in the following years.

She decided that life "wasn't worth living" and tried to slit her wrist.

But she regretted it the moment she saw the blood.

Tolkyn survived and has since received professional help and mental support from her school and family.

"They explained to me that it wasn't my fault that my friend ended her life," Tolkyn says. She wants adults to be more understanding toward children.

"Adults don't even try to understand what's going on inside a child's head, what problems the child is dealing with in their thoughts," Tolkyn says. "Adults don't even consider it a problem."

Experts warn that parents and teachers should pay attention to any sudden behavioral changes in children.

Sense Of Responsibility

Zhamal, a 30-year-old mother of three from the western city of Aqtobe, says she has thought about ending her life many times over the past five years.

She says marital problems and poverty have driven her to depression. When she was expecting their third child, she learned that her husband had two other wives -- a practice that's outlawed but still surprisingly commonplace in Kazakhstan.

When confronted, her husband told Zhamal to accept the situation or get a divorce. She left him and moved into a rented property, where she gets no child support from her husband.

Now, Zhamal sells homemade cakes, does occasional babysitting, and shovels snow to provide for her children, who are all between 4 and 10. The money is barely enough to pay the bills. Meanwhile, she also helps her disabled mother and her younger sister, who's been diagnosed with cancer.

She says it is a sense of responsibility to her children and elderly mother that is motivating her to try to change things for the better, instead of ending her own life.

Zhamal is trying to learn a new skill in order to get a steady job. She's also planning to apply for social benefits and a place in kindergarten for her youngest child.

She has also turned to religion to help her "get rid of suicidal thoughts for good."

Instead, she says, she focuses on making a fresh start in life.

Written by Farangis Najibullah with interviews conducted by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service correspondents Manshuk Asautai and Zhanagul Zhursin
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