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Suicide Is Not Just ‘Me,’ It Is A Problem Of ‘We’ – Why India Needs To Understand It Is A Public Health Issue

Posted: December 31, 2019
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Suicide is one of the issues plaguing our society, yet is rarely talked about. Isn’t it time we address the issue that is causing so many deaths each year?

A few days ago I came across a heart-wrenching Facebook post authored by a queer Facebook friend studying abroad. It is an extraordinarily painful narration of longing, love, infatuation, suicide and death. My impetus to write this article was to bring to the forefront an issue that is plaguing our country today. And receiving scant attention from both the media and the government.

According to a 2019 World Health Organisation (WHO) brochure, suicide is described as a global public health crisis. Close to 800,000 people are dying by suicide every year. The global age-standardised suicide rate was higher in males (13.7 per 100 000) than in females (7.5 per 100 000)

Also, most deaths by suicide occurred in low-and-middle-income countries (79 percent), where most of the world’s population lives (84 percent) As per 2016 data from the same report, India’s age-standardised suicide rate for all ages (per 1000,000) was 16.5 percent.

For the sake of comparison within South East Asia, Maldives’ suicide rate was 2.7 percent, Bangladesh’s 6.1 percent, Bhutan’s 11.6 percent and Thailand’s 12.9 percent. India’s suicide rate is thus, the highest in the region.

That feeling of being ‘trapped’

Despite these statistics, most people who die by suicide highlight feelings of helplessness, vulnerability, pain and being ‘trapped.’ This uneasy feeling of being ‘trapped’ is precisely what American sociologist C W Mills (1956/76) talked about in his seminal 1959-piece The Sociological Imagination. He says:

“What we observe in various and specific milieux, I have noted, is often caused by structural changes. Accordingly, to understand the changes of many personal milieux we are required to look beyond them…To be aware of the idea of social structure and to use it with great sensibility is to be capable of tracing such linkages among a great variety of milieux. To be able to do that is to possess the sociological imagination.”  

We need to answer these questions

What Mills exhorts us to consider is to ask the following questions:

  • What social structures enable death by suicide to occur so frequently in India?
  • Why are men at a greater risk of dying by suicide than women in India?
  • Which social groups within Indian society are most affected by the suicide epidemic?
  • Is suicide awareness enough to combat the suicide epidemic? What more can we do?

French sociologist, Émile Durkheim (1897) wrote a book Le suicide (Suicide) In the book, he pointed out that though the act of dying (by suicide) may be an individual act, that every society has a “suicide rate” means that suicide related death is also a social fact. Thus, no study of suicide is complete without analysing both the psychological and sociological causes for suicide.

Society and how suicide is affected by it

In his suicide note, Rohith Vemula wrote My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. The unappreciated child from my past.”

An excerpt from Payal Tadvi’s suicide note reads “Despite putting all efforts, the condition is still not improving, I am becoming mentally disturbed. The environment is not healthy to work and I have lost hope for anything to change because I know it won’t.”

Both these letters are a reflection of what The Human Rights Watch and the Centre for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ) at New York University School of Law call “The Hidden Apartheid” (caste-based discrimination in India)

And both cases are also indicators of modern day institutionalised casteism. This could have been avoided, had greater efforts been directed towards the making of public and private spaces that are less violent and unwelcoming to those who identify as Dalit, Adivasi and Bahujan.

Is the ‘marginalised’ community more prone to it?

The social construction of suicide includes other marginalised groups as well. A US Study points out that those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender between the ages 12 to 14, are at a much higher risk of dying by suicide than their heterosexual peers. Similarly, Thomas Weiss’s article, “People with Disabilities and Suicide Awareness,” highlights the mental health struggles faced by the disabled community.

An excerpt from the article reads “research on disability and depression has consistently shown that when people with disabilities report dissatisfaction with their lives they are not nearly as concerned with things such as reliance on machines or medications as they are with their relationships, financial security, or difficulties while at work.”

It is evident that people from marginalised and middle to lower-income communities require greater social cohesion and support from society. Instead, those who are disabled, are excluded from public spheres and are often viewed as liabilities and burdens by their own family members.

How patriarchy also affects suicide rates

Similarly, LGBTQ+ youth also experience feelings of isolation, loneliness and ostracisation from family and society owing to their sexual orientation. It is uncanny how the language employed in Rohith Vemula’s letter, could have also been used to speak the language of gender, disability and sexuality-based discrimination in India today.

To the point of gender, research shows that while women tend to have higher depression diagnoses and higher rates of attempted suicide, men are more likely to commit the act.

Why? Colman O’Driscoll, former executive director of operations and development at Lifeline, an Australian charity believes that a lot of it has to do with how boys are conditioned at a young age to mask their feelings. According to sociologist Sanjay Srivastava, by valorising men for not displaying emotion, our society reinforces toxic ideals of masculinity. It is indeed ironic, yet not surprising, that patriarchy and toxic masculinity can negatively affect some men, just as it affects women.

The NRC also affects people’s mental health

With the implementation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the abrogation of Article 370, Assamese and Kashmiri populations in the country are now at a greater risk of depression and suicide. Therefore, the conception of which social groups are to be included in any comprehensive study of suicide is also not static.

To conclude, it is extremely important that politicians, public policy experts and mental health professionals apply the sociological imagination. India urgently requires a comprehensive mental health plan with implementable solutions that speak to each marginalised social group in the country.

The path is difficult but we can get there

Such an action plan should not only be inclusive in ideology but also participatory in its creation, with inputs from members of each social group included in the plan. The goal of such a plan should be to assuage the high levels of transphobia, homophobia, ableism, casteism, classism and communalism plaguing the country today.

It is, indeed, unfortunate that discussions about mental health are extremely stigmatised even today. Even getting help is difficult, if not impossible to those who don’t have the financial means to access mental health therapy.

Suicide helpline centres across the country are also underfunded and lack manpower. Hence, a lot of efforts need to be taken within the medical profession to address these issues of access and accessibility of care as well. While the road ahead is arduous, I am hopeful that one day, India becomes a country with a 0 percent suicide rate.

It is difficult, but not impossible.

Academic References:

Mills, C. W (1956/76). Excerpt from The Sociological Imagination. OUP (pp 1-11).
Durkheim, Emile (1897) [1951]. Suicide: a study in sociology. The Free Press. ISBN 0-684-83632-7.

If you or anyone you know is feeling suicidal, here are some of the helplines available in India. Please call. 

Aasra, Mumbai: 022 27546669

Sneha, Chennai: 044 2464 0050

Lifeline, Kolkata: 033 2474 4704

Sahai, Bangalore: 080 25497777

Roshni, Hyderabad: 040 66202000, 040 66202001

Picture credits: Pexels

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Kanav Narayan Sahgal is a post-graduate student at Azim Premji University, Bangalore where he'

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