(If you feel suicidal or know someone in distress, please reach out to them with kindness and call these numbers of local emergency services, helplines, and mental health NGOs)
The statistics on suicide in India paint a sordid picture.
1.4 Lakh Indians died by suicide in 2019 alone.
17% of suicides globally take place in India, and suicide is the leading cause of death amongst young Indians aged 18-29.
Mainstream thinking and language around suicide blames individuals for supposed “weaknesses” or failings of character.
Parallel to this, the very real mental health issues of different communities are also dismissed – for example, the dominant discourse around student suicides focuses on the “lack of mental strength” and “impulsive behaviour” of youth.
Even when mental health issues are acknowledged as a contributing factor to suicide, they are still poorly understood and overly individualized. Media reporting on suicide also echoes these unfounded and damaging ideas.
Against the backdrop of these ever-present issues, the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences such as lockdowns, lack of access to life-saving vaccines and medications, and loss of lives and livelihoods have created a mental health crisis of unprecedented proportions.
While the effects are not yet fully known, emerging trends predict a significant spike in suicidal ideation and attempts.
Increases in suicides due to ostracism and stigma have been reported in rural districts in Karnataka when COVID-19 cases have surged.
The second wave of the pandemic has resulted in further anxiety around dying in sudden and unnatural circumstances, without access to family and friends.
The second wave has also caused suicide helplines across the country to be overwhelmed with distress calls, not to mention the frontline workers who are dying by suicide, bearing much of the brunt of managing the devastation while having scarce little access to support for themselves.
Mental health professionals and experts have also reported an increase in clients and patients reporting self-harm and suicidal ideation during the pandemic.
When we look at the issue of suicide in India closely, it becomes immediately apparent that in many cases, sociocultural factors are driving distress and suicide.
Marginalised groups, in terms of class, caste, religion, gender, etc. are disproportionately affected by suicide.
More than 20,000 married Indian women die by suicide each year. Within caste groups, the highest rate of suicide is amongst Scheduled Tribe communities (10.4*) and Dalits (9.4), according to NCRB data.
The same data shows that amongst religious groups, Christians recorded the highest rate of suicide at 17.6. Sikkim, one of India’s North-eastern states, records the highest rate of suicide amongst all states and Union Territories at 37.5.
That suicide impacts certain communities disproportionately cannot be explained away or adequately addressed by an approach that focuses on the individual alone.
Given the fact that the greatest risk factor for a suicide attempt is the occurrence of a previous attempt, dismissing people’s distress as personal failings and leaving them unsupported in times of crisis seriously increases the chances of completed suicides.
Mainstream thinking around suicide fails to account for the complex sociocultural realities that create the extremely stressful and traumatizing conditions that lead people to contemplate suicide.
Half of all suicides in India are not attributable to mental illness but rather to factors such as loss, loneliness, discrimination, relationship issues, financial problems, chronic pain and illness, violence, abuse, and conflict or other humanitarian emergencies.
Many of these experiences are exacerbated by the inequalities and biases deeply embedded in social, political and economic institutions, arising out of dominant ideas around gender, ethnicity, caste, religion, sexuality, etc, that lead to systematic oppression of certain communities based on their identities, thereby denying them opportunities for growth, security and justice.
As individual members of civil society, one of the most important things we can do is to educate ourselves on some of the prevailing myths around suicide, and have conversations with those around us to break these notions.
Common Myths About Suicide
Six prevailing myths around suicide that have been broken down by the World Health Organisation are (adapted from WHO’s 2014 report on preventing suicide):
1. Myth: People who talk about suicide do not mean to do it.
Fact: People who talk about suicide are often reaching out for help and support. Those who contemplate suicide may find it extremely difficult to reach out, and if not met with an empathetic and supportive response when they do, they may feel even more anxiety and hopelessness. It is important to take them seriously, and respond with care.
2. Myth: Most suicides happen suddenly without warning.
Fact: Most people that attempt suicide have shown signs of distress and/or attempted to reach out for help. Most suicides are preceded by such warning signs. While some suicides do occur unexpectedly, it is important to understand what the warning signs are and look out for them.
3. Myth: Someone who is suicidal is determined to die.
Fact: Many people who consider or attempt suicide are often not necessarily looking to end their lives. Many see death as a way out of the extreme distress and emotional pain that they are experiencing, rather than something that they actively wish for. Emotional support and care at the right time is crucial and effective in preventing suicide.
4. Myth: Once someone is suicidal, they will always remain suicidal.
Fact: Suicidal thoughts are not permanent. Most people experiencing such ideation can go on to live long lives if provided the proper support and care that they need and deserve.
5. Myth: Only people with mental disorders are suicidal.
Fact: Many people living with mental health issues are not suicidal; and not all people that are suicidal have mental health issues. In India, at least half of all suicides are not attributable to mental illness. Suicidal ideation and attempts indicate deep unhappiness, but not necessarily mental illness.
6. Myth: Talking about suicide is a bad idea and might encourage people to attempt it.
Fact: Since there are widespread taboos and stigma around suicide, most people experiencing suicidal thoughts feel isolated and unable to seek help. Talking openly about it can give people other options, encouraging them to seek support or rethink their decision.
It is the need of the hour for collective action on suicide prevention that focuses on changing the socioeconomic contexts in which suicide occurs, and providing adequate systems of support and care to prevent suicide.
*Suicide rate per lakh of the population.
(Shruthi M (she/ they) is a Project Coordinator at Mariwala Health Initiative, a funding and advocacy organization for mental health, with a focus on marginalized communities. Shruthi's experience spans philanthropy, mental health, eldercare and precious metals refining sectors.)