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13 reasons why India needs to talk about Suicide

By Swati Saxena
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13 reasons why India needs to talk about Suicide

Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, adapted from novel by the same name by Jay Asher has generated much debate and controversy since it has been aired. The series is based on 13 tapes by Hannah Baker that she records before committing suicide. Each tape holds one person responsible and the issues range from bullying, isolation, stalking, sexual violence, rape culture, and substance abuse. While the response has largely been positive, it has come under flak for glamorising suicide, graphic depictions of rape and suicide, and contagion effect. This has prompted the shows creators to offer defence and explanations, and ‘trigger warnings’ have been added by Netflix. Yet most agree that the show has opened space for a dialogue around mental health issues and suicide.

This article is not about the show (even though there is much to say on it) but why India as a country needs to look at this alarming problem.

Here are 13 reasons why:


  • Even though suicide is a major national problem, it is only now that suicide, or rather attempt to commit suicide has been decriminalised, amending the 1987 Mental Health Act. Earlier the person attempting suicide could be charged with up to one year in prison and a fine under Section 309 of the IPC. For a long time mental health continued to be seen through colonialist act which saw patients as ‘lunatics’ and ‘criminals’. In fact, Prior to 1993, Indian Lunacy Act, 1912 was governing the mental health in India.


  • “Family problems” and “illness” continue to be by far the leading causes of suicide. Other causes are drug abuse/addiction, relationship/love related matters, economic hardships, studies related stress, dowry dispute etc. Yet there is hardly any national suicide prevention hotline and most such services continue to be provided by the NGO sector and volunteers.


  • Most of these causes are preventable given timely recognition of the problem and intervention through dialogue, counselling and support. Unfortunately mental health problems like depression, stress and anxiety continue to be dismissed as commonplace, mood swings, and something that will go away on its own.


  • Vocabulary around mental health illness continues to be dismissive and there is no real recognition of the problem unless extreme deviations from ‘normalcy’ are observed. Indeed people suffering from mental health problems are dismissed as being weak or just pessimists.


  • In cases where there is obvious and recognisable deviation from ‘normal’ and ‘acceptable’ behaviour, such patients are shunned, ostracised or hidden from the societies. Instead of sensitive treatment they are subject to stigma and become source of embarrassment for families. Most cases go unreported.


  • Even when treatment is sought, mental health care is poorly funded, inadequate, and of appalling quality. Expensive international standard mental health care is mostly limited to private sector and concentrated in big towns, bringing in a sharp class divide. Even then infrastructure is inadequate and there are just 43 mental hospitals with a combined bed capacity of 20,000.


  • Even medical staff is grossly inadequate. For 70 million people suffering from mental health diseases in India there are only 3000 psychiatrists (requirement is 11500), 500 clinical psychologists (requirement is 17250) and 400 psychiatric social workers (requirement is 23000). Thus for one million people are just three psychiatrists.


  • The treatment itself is out dated, with overt reliance on medicines and Electro Convulsive Therapy. Most patients have no idea about the procedures and no say in the treatment. They are often separated from their families and subject to ill treatment from the staff. An extreme case of this came up recently in Delhi where 11 deaths were reported, women patients roamed naked, crawled on floor to reach filthy toilets and four persons shared unhygienic mattresses.


  • It is ironical that in a country where mental health exists in margins, state is quick to seek recourse in it even when the issue is social or political. Farmer suicides in Maharashtra due to deep agrarian crisis were met with government sending psychiatrists for counselling the farmers. Indeed, women who commit suicide due to dowry harassment, domestic violence or sexual exploitation are quickly declared mentally unsound by family and society. Similarly victims of caste discrimination are seen as isolated incidents. The real problems of poverty, casteism, and patriarchy are brushed aside.


  • A large number of suicides due to unemployment, poverty and bankruptcy can be prevented by a resilient economic system, good social support, and welfare schemes for risk resilience. Food security programmes, employment guarantee schemes, agricultural insurance, maternity benefits, affordable health care, old age pensions, LIG housing, and fair wages can go a long way in preventing suicide deaths.


  • Suicide deaths among the young due to study stress can be effectively controlled through a parental support system without unreasonable expectations or pressures on their child. Grades are often promoted as an end all in life and there is always an unfortunate spikes in young suicides around the time results are declared. Moreover education system should be supportive and accepting of varied levels of interests and calibre displayed by students.


  • India is passing through a transitory period where it is becoming increasingly globalised and a clash between modern values and orthodoxy is expected. A reorientation is also required in how the young approach relationships and love. Lessons in healthy relationships between genders and in consent for young are required. At the same time tolerant, non imposing parents and society will go a long way in saving young lives.


Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus said, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.” Suicide is a tragedy of the worst kind. It entails the level of hopelessness that makes people take their own life. It is an evidence of failure of the state and society. It represents a complete breakdown of humanity.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NEWSD and NEWSD does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.


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