Monday, October 2, 2023

Death wish

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An increasing number of Indian youngsters are embracing suicide. and the laws dealing with this grave problem are peculiar

By Rashme Sehgal

  •  A teacher from a leading Delhi school catches a Class X student using social media during class. “I need to speak to your parents,” she tells him. During lunch recess, the distraught student slashes his wrist.
  • Anita * an attractive 14-year-old girl from an affluent family, tells psychiatrist Dr Saurabh Malhotra of Medanta Hospital: “I feel sad all the time. I feel like dying.”
  •  18-year-old Sujata* is brought to a Delhi hospital with cuts on both her wrists. “When I see blood oozing out of my body, it gives me a sense of comfort,” she tells a doctor at VIMHANS in Delhi.
  • Another 18-year-old girl with 86 percent marks in her board exams, takes her life because she did not get admission to a college of her choice.

(* names changed to protect identity)


[dropcap]T[/dropcap]hese are but a few instances of young, educated Indians despairing and taking their lives. In India, suicides have become the number one cause of deaths among adolescents and young people. Shockingly, a study done by Dr Anuradha Bose at Christian Medical College, Vellore, found a high number of such deaths. Dr Bose said: “Suicides account for between 50 to 75 percent of all deaths among adolescents.” The study, which was published in The Lancet, found that the suicide rate in the 15-19 age group for those in Vellore was 148 per one lakh women and 58 per one lakh men. This shows that three times more younger women were committing suicide than men.

These findings have been reinforced by Dr Vikram Patel of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in a study, which found out that suicides cause twice as many deaths as HIV/AIDS and about the same number as maternal mortality cases among young women. Dr Malhotra insists: “There are several reasons for this exponential rise in suicides. Young people are witnessing a great deal of friction in their homes. There is no parenting in a large number of families. The social fabric of our society is breaking down.”

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he problem is compounded by young people being under increasing levels of stress. Malhotra says that the number of calls to their suicide helplines has risen dramatically. “Drug abuse among youngsters is rampant. This makes them more impulsive. Their mindsets have become so fragile that tolerance levels have reached an all-time low,” he adds.
This problem has been worsened by peculiar laws regarding suicide that have remained unchanged for the last 150 years in India.

A person found abetting or instigating suicide can be convicted. Strangely, attempting suicide is also an offense and can result in one year’s imprisonment.
Dr Sonali Bali, a psychiatrist at VIMHANS, says: “It’s a regressive law that needs to be changed. Youngsters are already leading isolated lives, leaving them feeling disconnected. Many suffer from depression. Locking them up in jails is hardly the solution.”
And the reason why India has the highest suicide rate amongst the young, says Bali, is because Indians know very little about depression or how to cure it. “There are many myths related to medication. Anti-depressants are not addictive and if taken for a few weeks, help improve the mental health of a patient. Counseling helps only in cases of mild depression, otherwise an individual has to be put on medication,” she explains.

Mental health services in India are abysmal and can’t cope with the pressure of a large number of patients. “We have only 3,000 psychiatrists for a population of 125 crore and even they are concentrated in metros,” says Bali.
Even while suicide rates among youngsters have gone up, among grown-ups too, the pressures of life are catching up. The National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) statistics reveal that the rate of suicide is increasing by 20 per cent annually. While men opt for suicide due to bankruptcy and other economic pressures, women do so due to emotional reasons, with dowry being one of the main reasons.

We also can’t ignore rural India. The Lancet study found that suicide rates here were almost double that of urban areas, with farmers leading the way. A recent WHO study on suicides found that out of the 2.58 lakh people who committed suicide in India in 2012, 1.58 lakh were men, and the rest, women. However, Virag Dhulia of Save Family Foundation says that the increase in suicides by married men has not been sufficiently highlighted. Dr Bose says that suicides are more rampant among women. Clinical psychologist Dr Sheljja Sen believes that suicide rates among adolescent and married women often go unreported. “Attempting to commit suicide often provides relief from depression among females, which is not the case with men. So when they commit suicide, it is more serious and harsh and results in death,” says Sen.


We have regressive laws regarding  suicide. A person found abetting suicide can be convicted. Attempting suicide is also an offense and can result in one year’s imprisonment. But locking up a depressed youngster is hardly the solution.


[dropcap]D[/dropcap]r Samir Parekh, director, Mental Health and Behavioral Sciences, Fortis Healthcare, found that a large number of suicide victims get their ideas from television, internet and other social networking sites. “The impact of media in increasing suicides cannot be underestimated. Past studies have also clearly established strong links between media viewing and aggression, leading to self-harm and impacting an individual’s moods and self-esteem,” he says.

“I was shocked to learn that 85 percent of the 3,000 respondents interviewed for a survey of mine, felt that suicides were attention-seeking behavior. That is such a misconception. We need to spread awareness so that people overcome their hesitation in talking about this issue and better help people who might be contemplating suicide,” he says.

Parekh and other psychiatrists are convinced that India needs suicide awareness strategies in schools, homes and communities. They also want a national suicide prevention policy to improve people’s capacity for self-help and to prevent suicide.

After all, life can be beautiful.

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