Trigger warning: Discussions of suicide.
There are hardly any people who would know about Devika Balakrishnan, a student of class 9 from Malappuram, Kerala, who died by suicide on June 2 this year.
She was the daughter of a scheduled caste daily-wage earner who could not afford either a television or a mobile phone for his daughter as her online classes started. Devika, in her helplessness, could find no other solution but to take her life.
She chose one of the most gruesome ways to kill herself. A bottle of kerosene found next to her charred body was both evidence as well as a witness to her act. She was only 14.
In the year 2017, Sarah Hegazi, an LGBTQIA+ activist from Egypt, was arrested and tortured by the Egyptian police for hoisting a rainbow flag at a concert in Cairo by a Lebanese band Mashrou’Leila. Hegazi was tortured for three months before getting a bail. She fled to Canada fearing prosecution. But living alone for three years without her beloved family (she lost her mother a month after she landed in Canada), struggling with depression and panic attacks, she lost her will to live and decided to take her life on June 13 this year at her Toronto apartment. Sarah’s only wish was to live peacefully in her country and love her siblings. She was 30.
TikTok influencer Siya Kakkar died by suicide on June 25 in Delhi. She was 16. She enjoyed celebrity status with over 1.1 million followers on TikTok. A few weeks after Siya’s death, another TikTok star, 18, died by suicide. They were both suffering from depression.
These mostly unnoticed suicides were completed a week before or after the suicide of one of the most promising Bollywood stars, Sushant Singh Rajput. Sarah Hegazi’s was just a day before Sushant’s suicide on June 14.
Sushant Singh’s ex-manager Disha Salian also died by suicide on June 8, a week before his suicide. Interestingly, they were all women who were younger than him but quite obviously much less known, and so did not cause deep pain and concern for most of the people in the country.
There are many things that brought to forefront the hypocrisy of the society at large that discriminates among people even after their deaths. I am definitely not writing this piece to either demean Sushant’s death by suicide or defend the deaths of these five young women by suicide as more serious or noteworthy.
The causes of suicide
Being a researcher whose work has been on suicide and the causes of it, I have been constantly thinking of how to place these suicides in a context that can help reach some understanding, even though temporary.
A few things are definitely clear and need minimum explanation. All suicides are a cry for help. It is when people are most vulnerable that they attempt an act which could be termed as outrageously heroic. After all it is not easy to take your own life. In many cases, the victims hope to be saved but the help reaches late.
Suicides are mostly planned and well-contemplated as well as connected to a reason that remains unexplained in most cases. People who die by suicide are not guilty of a crime but are clearly victims of their situation. As Emile Durkheim, the French sociologist has explained in his seminal text On Suicide (1897), social situations pose one of the basic threats and are also the main reasons for dying by suicide.
Further, he states that it is to begin with a sociological problem that is prevalent all across the globe but affects people differently in different situations. The reasons for suicide lies less with the victims than with the society at large which has been cruel towards them. There cannot be a fixed reason rather there are a number of factors that contribute to the fatal act.
Every suicide is tragic. Every suicide takes away a life that could have been meaningfully living or existing in this world. Artists have died by suicide even before the term ‘suicide’ was probably coined and used in the society.
Their suicides have often been considered a greater loss to society than those numerous anonymous suicides that become just a number for statistical data. This year in January 2020, the Economic Times published an article saying that according to the NCRB, 10,349 farmers died by suicide in 2018.
Societies, right from the early Greek and Roman civilisations, have been discriminatory in judging the validity of each suicide. History, since the advent of Christianity, has seen suicide as a “criminal act” that attracts penalty in the form of denying proper burial to the suicide victim or ostracising the family.
It is seen as an act against society. Disclosing these acts of self-murder, pushing them into the periphery or pretending oblivion to its existence has not helped in containing it. The myopic view of society has refused to see its own culpability in the whole act.
The basic instinct to preserve life (Eros) against the death instinct (Thanatos) is much greater in human beings than in animals. It is the enormity of the situation that turns it the opposite way.
The point here is that every suicide is equally significant. It needs to be taken seriously and should be probed and discussed in order to understand the issues or problems surrounding it. The effort should be to not place too much attention to one while ignoring the others.
There cannot be one single person to be blamed. In fact, there is an entire community that needs to be questioned.
While for many of us the reasons of suicide might often seem meaningless or absurd, there is a small section of people who would defend suicide as an act of freedom or heroism on part of the victim to end his/her miseries forever.
Recently, while teaching Albert Camus’s essay The Myth of Sisyphus, the whole debate about whether it is worth taking one’s life or not, could not be dismissed. Suicide is related to an existential crisis. People have struggled to deal with it and have both fought it and yield to it.
For many of us, in our weakest moments, the thoughts of suicide crowd our mind. Keeping a copy of Camus’s essay by the bedside and having the privilege to read it just the way it should be read – avoiding pessimism and defeating death – might be stronger. But for many others this privilege through the knowledge of it is never available.
The first signs of depression might not even be noticed by people just as suicidal thoughts are invisible. People contemplating suicide would never reveal it to anybody. Rather one comes across suicide survivors who narrate how they overcome the temptation.
There is though a ‘trigger’ that could be an immediate reason for suicide, and in a number of cases it is depression and anxiety.
When a suicide occurs, normally the instant reaction is to start thinking about it in order to find out the reasons for the suicide. The social media in India, in the last two months has left no space for a reasoned, unbiased investigation.
The pictures of Sushant’s lifeless body were circulated till people begged for showing some dignity in death. His death has been turned into a spectacle, a macabre of sorts that reeks of perverseness, cheap publicity and unapologetic display of inhumanity.
The people close to him find themselves deep into this muck of sensational journalism and undirected rage of Bollywood fans. Their collective conscience has found a culprit in Rhea Chakraborty accusing her of Black magic, drug abuse and even murder.
The top investigating agencies of the country – the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) are working extra hours to traumatise a young woman. It is reported that the National Investigation Agency (NIA) may also investigate Sushant Singh’s death case.
While the muddled nation wants to know the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of his death also keeping the noose ready for the one who killed Sushant Singh Rajput, consuming unfiltered, reckless rendition of the same story being played on their television sets, keeping themselves comfortably unaware of those who might be finding themselves in a similar situation like Devika or Disha, or Sarah or Sushant.
If Rhea is guilty of murdering him or forcing him towards suicide, she would be brought to the books. She has fully cooperated with the investigating agencies, and there is no speck of doubt that she cannot run loose from right under their noses.
Let us not pass judgments, put her on media trials and force her towards suicide, as she was herself quoted saying in an interview by Rajdeep Sardesai.
Rather than accusing one person over somebody’s suicide, it is time to reflect back and address this problem in a more transparent manner. Who is to be held accountable for the suicides of not just Sushant but Devika or Sarah or Siya? Why are there no provisions in place for holding those accountable who sensationalise suicide rather than create awareness?
Why is mental illness still a taboo in our society? Why depression, which could be indicative of suicidal behaviour, not taken seriously? And lastly, why caste, gender, social status or popularity are the criteria for labelling or judging someone’s suicide.
World Suicide Prevention Day is observed on September 10 and will go unnoticed by these same people who are watching the news on TV about the next development in his suicide case.
Running helpline numbers to prevent suicide has not been very effective in preventing suicides. Every year after the board exams, we hear about the suicide of young students who could not cope up with either the stress of performing good or the failure of getting good grades. Both men and women under stress due to domestic duties or work pressures are dying by suicide.
South East Asia has gained much attention in the last few years for the growing number of suicides, be it Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka or India. COVID-19 has triggered more suicides across the world.
From spotting the first signs of depression and anxiety to taking medical help to being there for them and to effectively communicate with them are some of the ways that can bear results. Taking collective responsibility for each life that has been lost by suicide is also what a thinking nation could do.
Interacting with nations that have minimum suicide rates and asking for their guidance could help too. Finally, keeping aside the uncountable hours that have been spent in the last two months scrolling and skimming through internet sites and news channels finding a solution to the celebrity’s suicide with no closure in sight in the near future, the need of the hour is to learn about suicides, to initiate discussions, to pass words of caution, to lend support to people in stress and to destigmatise suicide as a form of mental illness.
If you know someone – friend or family member – at risk of suicide, please reach out to them. The Suicide Prevention India Foundation maintains a list of telephone numbers (www.spif.in/seek-help/) they can call to speak in confidence. You could also refer or accompany them to the nearest hospital.
Uttara Bisht is senior lecturer at the Royal Thimphu College, Bhutan, and has written a thesis on the possible reasons of suicide among two 20th century women writers.