Suicide amongst the South Sudanese: the growing problem of South Sudanese refugees taking their own lives

28 January 2020

Although South Sudan’s suicide figures are reasonably low, at 3.7 deaths per 100,000 people, there is a growing concern over the risk of suicide amongst South Sudanese refugees living in Uganda.

UNHCR, UN Refugee Agency, found that the suicide rate amongst South Sudanese in Uganda in 2019 more than doubled compared to the previous year. They found that there were 97 suicide attempts, with 19 deaths.

The stark increase highlights the dire need for more and improved access to mental health services for those who have fled crisis and end up in situations where they don’t have a strong community network, a lack of livelihood and have witnessed, and more than often experienced, the worst a human could imagine. Key factors include sexual or gender-based violence and traumatic events which occur both before and after becoming a refugee, feeling unsettled and alone after fleeing home, extreme poverty and a lack of meaningful access to education, jobs and livelihood.



Rose* is a single mother of five, living in Uganda’s Bidibidi settlement. She fled the conflict in her home country of South Sudan after witnessing her husband’s murder and made it to Bidibidi settlement amongst 230,000 other refugees.

Rose’s life was saved after her 10-year-old son intervened during her suicide attempt. She has spent the past several months participating in regular group counselling sessions that have been available to her in the camp.

Rose’s sessions are run by a local non-government organisation called Transcultural Psychosocial Organisation (TPO). They helped 9,000 refugees and local Ugandans in and around Bidibidi settlement in 2019, by counselling them on how to manage negative thoughts, engage in social activities and reach out for help. Additionally, they also provide services and programmes to help work towards the dissolving of mental health stigmas, as well as training health-care providers and deploying community bases counsellors.

It is vital for those who are suffering from poor mental health to feel and know that they are supported and aren’t alone. Community is key. An article from emphasised that the “importance of community, family and peer to peer support” was a key human rights approach to try and prevent people taking their own lives.


Refugees fleeing their villages

In 2018, the UNHCR and partner organisations found that 19% of refugee households in Uganda reported at least one family member suffered from psychological distress or felt afraid. What’s worse is that less than half of the respondents said that there was access to psychological care for the affected family member, such as individual or group counselling, group therapy and meditation.

Additionally, existing mental health services are extremely strained due to a lack of funding. UNCHR secured only 40% of the $927 million which was needed to assist refugees and host communities in Uganda in 2019. Furthermore, due to lack of funding TPO was only able to reach 29% of South Sudanese refugees in need of its services and an even smaller percentage of local community members.

2020 is predicted to be another tough year, with the likelihood of vital funds, not looking promising.


Adam’s* wife, Mary, suffered from bipolar. She had told Adam she was going to visit her brother’s home, but after she never arrived, he grew concerned. A neighbour found her hanging from a mango tree the following day.

Adam told UNHCR; “My wife could not accept the fact that she was no longer able to cook, look after the crops and sweep the courtyard. She could not bear the persistent tiredness…She did not have any friends here to share her feelings and worries. Our neighbours did not really want to deal with us because of my wife’s mental problem. I think that’s what broke her deep inside.”

This highlights the perceived importance of community and the feeling of being accepted. It also highlights a lack of understanding and willingness to learn about mental health conditions. This is why it is so important for organisations like TPO to function and teach those who are and aren’t affected by mental health about how damaging they can be for those around them and how to handle and cope.

“Suicide is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Dmytro Nersisian, a psychologist from the International Organization for Migration (IOM). “It’s how people deal with their stresses and their suffering. It’s cumulative distress.”


James attempted suicide after the civil war in South Sudan forced him and his family to flee, his marriage subsequently broke down and he couldn’t feed his family. Luckily, his friend rescued him and lived with James for a month after the incident out of worry he would try again. Another friend lent him money to start a small carpentry business and he was able to stop drinking and reconcile with his wife. When talking to UNHCR James stressed that “you should not try and solve your problems alone. Always share them with the people in the community.”

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