British writer W. Somerset Maugham is said to have joked near the end of his life, “Dying is a very dull, dreary affair. And my advice to you is to have nothing whatever to do with it.” Many would be quick to agree and would gladly accept his advice if only it were that easy. More than two thousand years earlier, the Greek philosopher Epicurus suggested, “It is possible to provide security against other things, but as far as death is concerned, we all live in a city without walls.”
The certainty of death is clear. What we don’t know is how, when and under what circumstances. We derive considerable comfort if we learn that our loved one died peacefully while sleeping. We still grieve for the loss of those who are special to us, but we find some solace if they didn’t suffer or from the manner they died. If the death is by suicide, it will have a devastating and unsettling effect on the family of the deceased, and leave scars of shame and pain on its conscience.
We have been hearing of farmers’ suicide deaths in India due to failure of crops and the resultant debt burden. These circumstances have forced many to take the extreme step of committing suicide by consuming pesticide or hanging. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), at least 14,027 farmers committed suicide in 2011. However, this figure is not completely correct, as the suicide deaths in Chhattisgurh, which has been amongst the very worst states for farmers’ suicide deaths for several years (1126 in 2010), shows the figure of zero in 2011. P. Sainath says, “It could be that Chhattisgarh’s figures have simply not made it to the NCRB in time.”1 The total number of farm suicides since 1995 has touched 270,940. The state of Maharashtra, which is the native state of the union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar, is the worst affected state with 3,337 farmers’ suicide deaths in 2011 against 3,141 in 2010 (and 2872 in 2009). This should trigger a sense of national shame. The phenomenon of suicides of our food providers raises questions about the combined conscience of the society. Surely, it should hold up a mirror to all of us and lead us to ask what has gone so horribly wrong in our society. Two of the major reasons for this situation are globalisation and neoliberalisation.
Due to globalisation there is also an emergence of a new trend of suicides – suicides of youth in the age group of 15 to 29. This trend is growing as a disease rampant among youth, especially in cosmopolitan cities and towns. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in young people of both genders. Nearly 60 per cent of all suicide deaths among Indian women occur between the ages of 15 and 29 years, the corresponding figure for men being 40 per cent. Studies show that for every student who commits suicide, there are at least 13 cases who attempt suicide. The psychological, social and financial impact of suicide on a family is immeasurable. For the victim of suicide, it is a life needlessly lost. For the survivors of suicide victims, the family and friends, there is enormous social, economic and emotional costs, disrupting families and communities, broadly ramifying grief, guilt and a lifetime of unanswered questions. They are often reluctant to openly discuss the cause of death because of profound sadness, sense of privacy, embarrassment or cultural taboo.
Suicide is an act that is contrary to what is perhaps the strongest of human instincts (the instinct of any living thing) – survival. To end one’s own life is incomprehensible for most of us.
Causes of Suicide
Although suicide is a deeply personal and an individual act, suicidal behaviour is determined by a number of individual and social factors. Divorce, dowry, pre-marital love affairs, wedding cancellation or the inability to get married, illegitimate pregnancy, extra-marital affairs, family conflicts and depression play a crucial role in suicide in India. Domestic violence was found to be a major factor for suicide in a study in Bengaluru. Poverty, unemployment, debts and educational problems are also associated with suicide.
The rising trend of suicides among young people lies in the socio-cultural changes that are taking place in the increasing globalised and urban India. Rapid urbanisation, industrialisation and emerging family systems are resulting in social upheaval and distress.
According to a study published in June 2012 by a medical journal Lancet, suicide death rates are generally greater in the more developed four southern states of India (Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala) which have nearly a ten times higher suicide rate than some of the less developed northern states. What contextual factors may be contributing to this dramatic regional variation? One possibility is that the higher rates of suicide in the more developed and educated communities of India may be attributed to “the greater likelihood of disappointments when aspirations that define success and happiness are distorted or unmet by the reality faced by young people in a rapidly changing society” where jobs may be higher paying but less secure, and where social networking more accessible but loneliness more common.2
The effects of modernisation have led to sweeping changes in the socio-economic and cultural areas of people’s lives, which have greatly added to the stress in life, leading to substantially higher rates of suicide. Greater socio-economic stressors have followed the liberalisation of economy and privatisation, leading to the loss of job security, huge disparities in incomes, diminishing traditional support systems and the inability to meet role obligations in the new socially changed environment.
- Family Situation
The breakdown of the joint family system that had previously provided emotional support and stability is also seen as an important causal factor for suicides in India. Nuclear families in which both parents work are becoming more common. Since both parents work to make ends meet, or in some cases to move up the social ladder or to maintain the social status, they do not have time to think of the psychological condition either of their children or of each other. Life in families is jam-packed and there is no time for anybody to care for the other. Only stomachs are more cared than minds and hearts. A lack of emotional support at home can lead to distress among children and adolescents.
- Education System
The education system in India is more job-oriented than life. Pressure to perform well to reach higher academic qualifications is one of the major reasons for suicide.
Moreover, education has become very competitive. The pressure to excel is very high, given the tough admission procedures in top educational institutions as well as the competitive job market. Parents today are more worried about the academic performance to push their children up as per their ambitions rather than the ability and condition of their children. Children are forced to study what their parents want. The ill consequences of this are stress, anxiety, frustration and despair in young people, as they are unable to meet the expectations of their parents, schools and colleges.
Failure in examinations and lack of family support in such situations cause depression in youth. 72% of students in India are unaware of how to deal with stress and its ill effects. Therefore, inability to accept failure or loss in self esteem leads to dejectedness and suicide. Among the major causes of suicide are examination failures. Suicide news filling the newspaper columns after examination results has become common in India.
- Work Pressure
Opportunities that have come with two decades of economic growth and open markets have also brought more job anxiety, higher expectations and more pressure to achieve. A survey released recently by the US-based Regus group, a corporate consultancy, found that 57% of Indians thought that their stress levels had become higher, or much higher, since 2007. That means almost six in every ten corporate employees in India say that they have experienced stress at their work place. Pankaj Jain, who is employed by a leading IT company, says, “In India…we reach the office by 9.00 am, but we don’t know when we will go home.” Saurabh Lapalkar, a software engineer at a US-based technology firm in India, says the stress is exacerbated by the fear of not being able to advance in one’s career or of losing one’s job.
Stress has ill effects. 76% under stress say they have sleeping disorders and 58% suffer headaches. 85% of people under stress tend to have strained relations with family and friends. 70% of people under stress say they have become short tempered. A study of NIMHANS, Bengaluru, says 36% IT professionals in Bengaluru show signs of psychiatric disorder. 27.6% of IT professionals are addicted to narcotic drugs and 1 in every 20 IT professional contemplates suicide, says the study.
If the stress is not dealt with, it leads to depression. According to the World Health Organisation, depression is the No 1 occupational disease of the 21st century.
- Social Life
The internet and mobile culture is promoting a virtual community, where time spent playing with local friends is replaced by internet gaming with virtual playmates from across the world, and face-to-face communication and meaningful personal relationships are replaced by virtual friendships through social networks such as facebook and orkut. Youth and children are living in the virtual world…ISOLATED with only gadgets giving them company. Too much addiction to internet and self-centered approach often aggravates their isolated life. Teens become cocooned “insects” without any interaction with anyone. In this age of social networking and websites youth are isolated in their societies and live a reclusive life.
Social isolation is one of the reasons for the rise in suicide among young people. They tend to carry their own burdens without anyone around to share, and get moral and emotional support.
As a result, life seems to be nothing more than a hellish nightmare to the disappointed youth of a modern emotional world. When a friendship or love affair fails, today’s emotional mind thinks of suicide as the only relief. They easily lose confidence in life as their unrealistic sense of hopelessness is one of the most crucial factors in the development of their serious suicidal wish. They do not want to analyse things. Rather they jump to the conclusion that their problems are insoluble. Traits such as impulsivity that increase the risk of suicidal behaviour impair parents’ ability to provide an optimal environment.
When young people start to despair, they often don’t seek help. They shun the idea because they think psychiatry and counselling are only for crazy people. Even the manner in which families and society deal with all forms of mental illness is the cause for a very large proportion of suicides in India. Depression is rarely recognised and when recognised it is even more rarely treated because there is a stigma attached to ailments of mind. What can be easily treated with some medication and counselling more often goes untreated till it develops into a more serious form.
Therefore, one should promote help-seeking behaviour, and foster self-esteem and resilience in youth. Family, schools and colleges serve as building blocks of an individual’s life and can play a vital role in building value systems, setting acceptable individual aspirations and appropriate goal-setting mechanisms. More importantly, faith in God acts as a protective factor.
Lastly, but most importantly, the bigger questions are about the role of social change as a driver of hopelessness. If, indeed, social change is a driver of youth suicide, then we need to reflect on our model of development.
- P. Sainath, “Farm Suicides Rise in Maharashtra, State Still Leads the List,” in The Hindu (3rd July 2012). [↩]
- Katy Daigle, “Report Shows High Suicide Rate among Young Indians,” in Find Law (22nd June 2012). [↩]