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Thursday, September 24, 2015

Why have suicides become such an epidemic? - The Hindu

September 23, 2015


Suicides seem to have become an epidemic lately. Not a day passes without newspapers reporting yet another unfortunate person, be it a farmer, or a college student or a housewife, taking his or her own life. Each suicide is a trauma caused to the social group immediately proximate to the victim. And so the epidemic as a whole ought to be traumatic for society at large. But it apparently is not.

Sure, lip sympathies are paid: the government announces an enquiry, the parents blame the college, farmers blame the government, colleges feign injured innocence and peer groups feign befuddlement, and life moves on. The usual templates are trotted out to explain each case: if it’s farmer, it’s the debt that killed him. If it’s a student, it’s the academic pressure. If it’s a housewife, it must have been familial breakdown.

It’s when a suicide does not fit any template, such as the death of Maris Stella student Bhanupreeti, or the death of IIT Chennai student Nagendra Kumar Reddy, we are befuddled. Beyond that befuddlement, we must ask the right question. 

The question is not why so many teenagers are taking their own lives, when they ought to be looking forward to life. The point is that they are. The question ought to be what we can do about it. 

It’s not enough to know that academic pressure or indebtedness -- any other explanation that might be -- are trigger factors for suicide. The conclusion we must face is that these social factors are corroding our sense of self-worth, and when that cuts through all defences, a person decides that he or she has nothing to offer to the world and must therefore extinguish oneself.

Counselling psychologist T.S. Rao hints as much in relation to the Maris Stella suicide: “It is clear that stress is not the only factor that drives students to suicide. Students in such colleges (like Maris Stella) are not under great stress. Some corporate colleges make their students cram for 14 hours a day, but this is not one such college.”

While any number of measures might be taken to ease academic stress or indebtedness, what is perhaps wiser to do is to train our sights on shoring up an individual’s sense of self worth. This means that we have to work towards removing the stigma attached to be in debt, or the opprobrium that comes when a child is not a topper and therefore certifies himself or herself a failure.

The epidemic of suicides clearly suggests that we need psychological counsellors as much as teachers in our colleges, and teachers who are friends as much as they are evaluators. By extension, it goes that parents must be parents more than drill sergeants, and so on.

To start with we need trained psychologists and psychiatrists who play a greater role in the centre of this phenomenon and not just at its edges. The number of qualified practitioners of both kinds in India is laughable. According to the National Survey of Mental Health Resources, there are just 4,000 psychiatrists in the country against the WHO norm of 12,000. 

While there should be one psychiatrist for every one lakh population, there is one for every three lakh population in India. No wonder that the psychiatry is among the less preferred specialisations for a medical graduate. Why would that be? Why isn’t the psychiatrist a hero just as much as a surgeon is? That must stem from the belief that storms in the mind are something to be ashamed of, something to be kept secret and suffered in private. That’s where we must begin: with the realisation that the mind is the most delicate of a person’s identity, and must be kept healthy and nurtured just as much as the heart.