CPSP filmmaker Heshani Sothiraj Eddleston reflects on making her first film on pesticide suicide and developing an understanding of the complex issues surrounding self-harm in Sri Lanka.
This article discusses suicidal behaviour. If you have questions on self-harm or feel suicidal, call 116 123 to speak to a Samaritan (UK) or use this link to find an international helpline.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, while working as a producer for an environmental TV series in Sri Lanka, I became aware of news stories about people dying of suicide across Sri Lanka.
The situation was so bad that the then president of Sri Lanka, Chandrika Bandaranayake Kumaratunga, banned local journalists from reporting suicides, fearing that people would get ideas about how to harm themselves or mimic these acts.
I was curious. I wanted to know more. Why was this happening? How was it so easy for people to take their own life?
Assumptions and unanswered questions
I, like many others, assumed it was because people in North Central Province suffered more. After all, it was their sons and daughters who joined the Sri Lankan armed forces in the ongoing civil war. Hence, they would be depressed and angry at the situation.
I also believed that people must be suffering from mental health problems due to poverty and felt they had no agency to control what was happening.
The newspaper articles frequently referred to the method of suicide as ‘drinking poison’; however, I, for one, didn’t know what this poison was.
I could not get hold of anyone who would give me a clear idea of what was going on; perhaps I wasn’t looking hard enough. I knew I wanted to make a film about it but had no idea how to go about it.
An unconvincing introduction to pesticide poisoning
It was around this time that I met Michael Eddleston, a young British doctor who was working in hospitals in the North Central Province. A clinical toxicologist and Wellcome Trust researcher, he was working with doctors to better manage poisoned patients in these hospitals.
He spoke to me about pesticide poisoning, the need for better hospital care, and the urgent need to ban highly hazardous pesticides (HHPs) from vulnerable communities. He explained that people died because of the ease by which they could access these HHPs. If we took these compounds away, lives would be saved.
I asked him about societal pressures, whether this was not a key component of causing stress in people’s lives? He said that, although psychosocial conditions may be contributing factors, the main cause of death was the high toxicity of the poisons.
I wasn’t convinced.
An ‘absurd’ idea to ‘make self-harm safe’
They noted that the number of self-harming cases in rural Sri Lanka was similar to the number in the West. However, people were dying in large numbers in rural agricultural villages because of the high toxicity of the poisons (the pesticides) that they consumed.
They also reported that this was because the pesticides were lethal, readily available, and accessible to the farmers and their families. Their solution was to ‘make these acts of self-harm safe’, by preventing access to highly poisonous pesticides.
This was a concept that I did not understand or necessarily agree with. ‘Making self-harm safe’ just sounded absurd.
Road traffic safety, pesticides and a 12-year-old child
Michael gave me a seat belt analogy to help me understand what ‘making self harm safe’ meant. He noted that seat belts made driving safer but did not stop road traffic accidents.
Still not convinced, because I still believed that self-harm was mainly a mental health problem, I began visiting hospitals in North Central Province and talking to families, farmers, and vendors.
Michael and his team of doctors and researchers helped me identify families. I was then let loose to wander around, chatting with people.
One incident that has stayed with me for almost 20 years is the story of a young girl of 12.
She was in a ward recovering from an act of self-harm by drinking a pesticide. I first chatted to her mother, who said she was silly to take poison “and now we all have to suffer; luckily, she did not die”.
The next day the girl was alone. I asked her what made her do it; she said she had started her period for the first time and had had stomach cramps. Her sisters laughed at her; they ‘mocked’ her.
She was hurt, embarrassed and angry, so she drank poison to show them that their words and behaviour were hurtful and she was genuinely upset. She found the bottle at home and drank it. Did she mean to die? She said she hadn’t really thought that far. She just did it.
She didn’t think of the consequence of the action. She acted to teach them a lesson.
… and more stories of people who did not intend to die
A young man who said he wanted to show his parents that he was serious about his love relationship. Farmers who couldn’t pay their debts. And a mother who couldn’t cope with the pressures of home, in-laws, and a husband who ignored her. The list went on.
Some were depressed and had mental health conditions, but perhaps may not have used pesticides if they had been hard to access.
But mostly the stories were about a knee jerk reaction to a stressful situation and the feeling that this was their only way to communicate their hurt.
I was saddened and surprised that people were dying because they could not cope with life pressures; that this was a way to communicate their pain.
“I was angry and wanted to do something”. This was something I heard repeatedly during my conversations with survivors. Most had no real intention of dying.
Street performers and pesticide sales
This was also a time when large companies would advertise their agricultural weedicides and insecticides through street drama performers.
They would promote their latest high-strength products to the community. Children and adults would gather around to watch them. These street performers were funny and made people laugh. This was exciting. For a moment, folk forgot about their poverty and life stresses. Pamphlets were distributed on the various products available in the market.
This was an extremely successful tactic, encouraging sales and establishing brand recognition within the communities.
It was also a time when people could walk into a local shop and ask for a bottle of pesticide bottle by name, and the vendor would hand it to them over the counter.
Understanding more about the complexities of self-harm
I then met Jean Maracek, a Professor of Clinical Psychology from Swarthmore College, who spent many years researching the role of self-harm amongst children and women. She shared her findings with me, suggesting that it was the ‘loss of face’, or shame (læjja-baya), centred around modesty, purity, innocence, and self-effacement, that lay behind many people’s reasons for taking poison.
Unsure of how to show their innocence, goodness or virtue, people would drink poison to maintain their reputation – their ‘good self-image’.
Talking to doctors, nurses, academics, Buddhist monks and families, I slowly began to understand the complexities of self-harm and what the term ‘make self-harm safe’ might mean in the Sri Lankan context. And the dissonance I felt with it slowly settled.
Finishing my first film on pesticide poisoning
In 2005, with initial funding from the Colorado State University, supported by Prof Lorann Stallones, I finished my film.
I had started and completed filming in October, during the Maha season when farmers start cultivating. That year, in October, 11 people died from pesticide poisoning in the hospital where I filmed. At the same time, over 400 people across Sri Lanka lost their lives from acts of self-harm.
The film, entitled ‘Month of October’, explored the cultural, religious social and emotional aspects of self-harm. Many talked about the idea of Karma, about fate. Doctors and nurses discussed their feelings of treating patients and the burden they impose on the healthcare system in Sri Lanka.
I was granted permission to roll camera’s inside the hospital. We took consent from patients and their families to document their stories. The film was showed a few real time journeys from a person being wheeled into the hospital and dying because the pesticide they consumed was untreatable.
In the film I met a young 23 year-old woman Udeni, at that time pregnant and a mother of a 3 year old. She tried to harm herself after a domestic dispute, but luckily survived. I met her again in 2019; she now has 3 boys and is pregnant with another child. She is thriving and glad that she survived. It was a joy to be able to meet her again and I look forward to seeing her when I travel next to Sri Lanka.
Reflecting on changes in Sri Lanka
Things have dramatically changed in Sri Lanka over the years. Far fewer people are dying now after stringent bans have removed toxic pesticides.
I also see a change within communities, with more people becoming aware of the dangers of pesticides. Vendors are being trained to identify high risk behaviours so that they do not sell pesticides to people who then drink them. Some farmers are being more mindful of where they store their pesticides.
However, using self-harm to communicate feelings, particularly in Sri Lankan rural communities, is still an ongoing practice.
Seventeen years on since I began looking at this issue, I am still making films to create awareness of the dangers of highly hazardous pesticides in the hope that we can remove these poisons from rural agricultural communities.
Heshani is a visual storyteller who has worked for over 20 years as a documentary filmmaker. She works with the team at CPSP to tell stories around pesticide poisoning and sales, ensuring that the Centre’s work is seen and can be related to a general audience.
Heshani’s films can be found on the CPSP YouTube channel.