In Retrospect

Suicide: Cry of the helpless

While many would argue that the causes for committing suicide are personal and often varied, the fact that this perceivably private incident has grown into a rampant social phenomenon is reason enough to believe that there must be more public discourse to grapple with this apparent 'taboo,'writes Radhika Dutt.

14-year-old teenager, Nakia Venant from Miami, commits suicide after streaming a 2-hour live video on Facebook. She was found hanging in her bathroom, after one of her friends who had seen the live video went to look out for her. The biological mother of the teenager, who was living with foster parents, is said to have been watching the video online She has also been accused of mocking her daughter in the comments, while the teenager went ahead to take her life.

24-year-old, Arjun Bharadwaj from Mumbai, streams a live video on Facebook – containing a tutorial on 'how to commit suicides' before jumping off the 19-storey room of Hotel Taj Land Ends at Bandra. A suicide note recovered by the Mumbai Police suggests the boy was suffering from drug addiction and wanted to end his life due to the damage his compulsion was causing him.

The above excerpts are news clippings that were published a day after these horrific events took place. Across the world several adults and young adolescents have taken to the internet to express their dying wishes. The live streaming of death had so far been reserved to extremist groups who routinely uploaded acts of beheading and stoning. Since 2016 there has been an upsurge across the world, where people have voluntarily taken to live streaming their last minutes. According to the WHO, each year approximately 1 million people die from committing suicide. This translates to a global mortality rate of 16 per 100,000, or one death every forty seconds.

On typing 'suicide' on the Google search bar, the first search result will provide you with a 24*7 helpline number. In countries across the world there are now helpline numbers to attend to the ones contemplating on taking the drastic, final step of ending their own life, their very being. While on one hand it is a laudable initiative to reach out to the ones is silent need of compassion; on the other hand it exemplifies the harsh rampancy of this phenomenon today. Like instant food delivery, our population today is in need for instant deliverance of anonymous empathy.

Delhi Police data reveals that 444 suicide cases were registered in the capital during the period of April 2016 – March 2017. Across the country there were 1,33,623 registered cases of suicide in the year 2015. In a population of 1.3 billion, 10.6 people out every 1 lakh are dying by committing suicide. CISF data suggests that 65 people attempted to commit suicide by jumping on to the metro tracks in 2016. In 2017, so far 34 people have attempted to take their lives on the metro tracks. The Emergency ward at AIIMS says that each week approximately 5-6 cases of self-poisoning are admitted. While many would argue that the causes for committing suicide are personal and often varied- the fact that this perceivably private incident has grown into a rampant social phenomenon is reason enough to believe that there must be more public discourse to grapple with this apparent 'taboo.'

Section 309 of the Indian Constitution criminalises attempts to commit suicide with a maximum punishment of imprisonment up to one year. The Mental Healthcare Bill which was finally sanctioned by the Lok Sabha on March 27, 2017 seeks to decriminalize the act by suggesting that- "Notwithstanding anything contained in section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, any person who attempts to commit suicide shall be presumed, unless proved otherwise, to have severe stress and shall not be tried and punished under the said Code." While on paper the possibility of mental ill-health has been approved as legitimate, there continues to be strong apathy towards the mentally-ill in our country.

Niharika Ghosh, a registered consultant clinical psychologist (child and adult), recounting her experiences says that the cause for committing suicide almost always can be seen in light of a backdrop of depression. Depression expresses itself in a plethora of ways- from immediate emotional vulnerability to stagnated anxiety, outburst of repressed memories, and a constant feeling of guilt, to name a few. Unfortunately, depression is also almost always accompanied by tendencies of inflicting self-harm. Despite the rampancy of depression in the country, and in fact across the globe, this chronic disease continues to be a hush-hush subject, which can only be discussed behind closed doors. WHO's global health estimates that about 5 crore Indians suffer from depression, and another 3 crore suffer from anxiety disorders. It is believed that depression is now the most contagious disease, and by 2030 it would be the numero uno cause for deaths across the globe. The causes of depression are varied. Often they are deep-rooted and can be genetically assigned, it can also be triggered by a history of substance abuse, in yet other situations it can arise from experiencing trauma in one's life- death of a near one, and very often depression is triggered by repressed memories of childhood abuse or conflict.

Sneha's (name changed on request), is one such story- one among many that are hidden in the embellishments of privileged society. "I have been a victim of bullying from a very young age. I was bigger in size than my classmates which somehow gave them the license to abuse me. What started as simple verbal abuse later magnified. My childhood has been smeared with memories of sexual abuse- I was reminded everyday that I didn't fit in. I was too scared to confide to my parents, we belonged to a socially respectable family where sexual abuse was a tabooed subject. I kept my fears with me, never sharing it with anyone. As I grew up, I realised I was incapable of handling personal relationships. I turned into an abusive person who shunned away anyone who came too close. After a few attempts at taking my life I began visiting a therapist. Since then I have been diagnosed with PTSD, and I am on medication for clinical depression," she shares. Her story is not unique; our cities are dotted with such suicide survivors who walk past us with beaming smiles, having learnt well to hide from society what it, unfortunately, deems unacceptable.

Sumaitri, an NGO situated in Delhi which operates a suicide helpline number says that most of the people who call them are suffering from depression and a strong sense of isolation. This is ironic, given our present day where we are drowning in social media and forging apparent relationships. The world of virtual reality has unfortunately taken away the sanctity of privacy. In the race to make more friends, we have isolated ourselves from making real companions. Sumaitri receives 6-7 phone calls and visitors a day, taking the count to about 200 people seeking help in a month. Sumaitri has adopted a process known as 'befriending' wherein through dialogue they attempt to resolve the inner conflicts for which people come to seek assistance. "People are initially hesitant in their approach, as it is still not easy to talk about personal trauma, they want us to ask them and coax them, on which they open up and share all they wanted to with us," says Varsha, a volunteer at Sumaitri. "Most people who come to us are just in search of a non-judgmental listener who would support them at their most vulnerable. Our world is becoming too individualistic, and not everyone is equipped enough to cope with it," she adds.

While on an individual level depression is a strong precursor to committing suicide, socially it has many more ramifications. We are a generation born with a strong penchant for instant gratification. Burgers on a click, pizzas with a 30-minute delivery deadline, dates at the swipe of a finger, and money by just typing a few digits- persistence, and perseverance have become pursuits of the past. While we must empathise with those who are clinically ill, the practice of self-critique must not die out. "Children today are not taught to be emotionally competent. From a young age they are taught to conquer the outer world, yet the task of controlling the world within your mind is left unattended," says consultant clinical psychologist Niharika Ghosh.

The approach to building a discourse on suicide has to begin with a two-pronged approach. On one hand there is an increasing need to sensitise the population about mental illnesses. Stories of depression have to be shared without which each patient would potentially meet the same misfortune at self-inflicted death. Second, while mental-illness needs to be sensitised, the ability to face rejection must also be taught to growing adults. Stories of people taking their lives because they did not receive certain grades, or of unrequited lovers laying their lives for their loved ones, often dot our TV screens, or daily newspapers. While we pity over the dead or cringe at their irrationality we ought to practice the art of critiquing ourselves, our practices with which we have created a world where we are subsumed in an abyss of perceived negativity- never being able to cope just enough.

As children, we often dream of conquering the world, but in adulthood we must learn to contain ourselves and our dreams within the peripheries of this very world.
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