Fear Of ‘What Will People Say?’ Is Driving Up India’s Suicide Rate
Having worked in counselling and suicide prevention for over a decade, I am often asked what kind of people come for help. Many are shocked to learn that mental and emotional problems and suicidal feelings cut across education levels, socio-economic classes, gender, age and even family backgrounds. Across the board, human emotions — pains, fears, frustrations and worries — truly are universal and transcend any stereotypical notions we have of mental illness. Also, across the board, the thing that inhibits people most from getting the help they need is a fear of what other people might say and think.
So, it’s time to take a hard look at what we’re saying and thinking about mental health. Suicides in India increased by 23% from 2000 to 2015 with the maximum number of such deaths being reported in the 30 to 45 age group, followed closely by young adults between 18 and 30 years, according to data released by the National Health Profile of India, 2018. The two age groups together (18 to 45 years) accounted for more than 66% of suicides in 2015.
India has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, according to a 2012 study published in the Lancet, and the statistics on suicide among youth are particularly alarming; in 2015, every hour, a student committed suicide in India, per the National Crime Records Bureau report for that year.
We might like to think “these problems don’t happen to our people,” but they do.
“These problems don’t happen to our people” is a common rationalization I hear — whether “our people” means Hindus, Muslims, Parsis, Sikhs, or any other community, many people believe that mental health issues skip certain religions or social classes. A young man who had attempted to take his life blurted out to me once during therapy, “How has it come to this in my life? I come from a respectable Hindu family!”
We might like to think mental health problems don’t happen to people like us, but they do.
The factors that drive a person to take their lives are often something we can all relate to. Close to 25% of suicides are related to family problems. For example, romantic relationships, joint family dynamics, parental pressure to perform up to academic, professional or personal expectations, emotional abuse and domestic violence are all contributing factors that push people over the edge to take their own lives.
And yet common parlance refers to those with emotional problems as “pagal,” or assumes those with emotional difficulties are not being “strong enough,” or that they “don’t come from a good family or upbringing.” These casual phrases feed the misconception that mental health problems are for other people.
And so, the attitude that such problems need to be kept at home only and swept under the carpet, for fear of what others might say or think, spreads. “Log kya kahenge?” and family izzat are the main culprits that prevent people from getting help, as though being in denial will get rid of the very problems that tend to snowball if suppressed.
What people say and think can be harsh. It can be exceptionally difficult to admit to a child’s mental health problems from the sense of failure it might evoke.
Shriram (named changed to protect confidentiality) was a young man from a wealthy and conservative family who came to therapy at the point of being suicidal. Miserable in an arranged marriage that left him with low self-esteem, he feared being socially ostracised if he left the relationship. He feared the judgment of others and how it would negatively affect his parents’ reputation and his sister’s potential marriage prospects. As someone who had always pleased his parents — in academics, in work, and in his marriage — he felt he had no option but to stay in a relationship that made him deeply depressed. Only when Sriram had thoughts of ending his life did he decide to give therapy a try.
What people say and think can be harsh — for parents, especially. It can be exceptionally difficult to admit to a child’s mental health problems from the sense of failure it might evoke. If anything is not going great in a child’s life – a woman’s raison d’être, according to society — people silently or even openly point fingers at the mother particularly.
But is the disapproving gaze of society more important than the well-being of our loved ones?
Getting help from an experienced, professional therapist or psychiatrist has been proven to help those in a distressed state, but overcoming fear of society’s judgment and disapproval to get that help is not easy. Rather, it is brave.
Confronting one’s own emotional pain in order to seek help and release is a very proactive and courageous thing to do. It takes a very emotionally strong, confident and mature person – and very emotionally strong, confident and mature parents — to admit when a person is facing more than they can handle, to accept that emotional vulnerability is not a vice or setback.
Hearteningly, this kind of attitude is slowly replacing older myths about “people like us.” Hindi movies and TV serials, like the popular Krishna Challi London, now try broach the topic of mental illness and suicide more frequently than before. And the Hindi movie Dear Zindaagi, for instance, attempts a realistic portrayal of a young woman struggling in her search for identity and seeking therapy to help her find it; Alia Bhatt’s character in that movie is so relatable she could be you or me.
But we can’t wait for movies and TV shows to tell us what to think and say; the cost of waiting for that transformation is too high. We’re responsible for our own attitudes, and in light of the statistics, it might be worth asking “Log kya kahenge?” or “How could this happen to people like us?” a little less, and “How can I help?” a little more.