It is estimated that 3 people in Mumbai die by suicide every day. Every 3 seconds, a person attempts to die. This number is expected to be higher this year, owing to the decriminalization of suicide, leading to more accurate reporting.
Many organisations are trying to help individuals who might be suicidal, by offering mental health support; however, reducing the staggeringly high number of suicides among Indian youth will involve much more than treatment for mental health concerns. Reducing the stigma around suicide will encourage youth in need of help to reach out for support, which will help save many lives. As a starting point, we, as a community, need to change the language we use when we talk about suicide.
We commit crimes; we commit sins; we commit mistakes. Unfortunately, we also “commit” suicide. When we use that term, there is an inherent assumption that suicide is a wrongdoing. We imply that the person has committed a crime or a sin, unworthy of empathy. Instead, we must use “passed away by suicide,” or even “committed suicide.” Similarly, while talking about a suicide attempt, we should avoid terms such as “succeeded” or “failed.” How might one be successful at suicide, when the result is death, or fail at an attempt to commit suicide when the outcome is survival? This paradoxical language leads to confusion and perpetuates stigma. As our culture makes the crucial shift from viewing suicide as a crime to viewing it as a consequence of depression or other mental health concerns, our language, too, must change to facilitate that transition.
The information that is propagated while talking about a suicide also contributes to its negative connotation. One cannot imagine the turmoil that the deceased person's family goes through, and although the best thing we can do to support them is to respect their privacy while they grieve, what ends up happening is quite the opposite. Rumours start to creep up about the various reasons for the suicide, and unnecessary information is linked to the event. It is inconsequential that the individual was the son of an influential businessman, the daughter of a politician, or the grand-nephew of a Bollywood celebrity. It is also tremendously insensitive to exaggerate or oversimplify the reason for the young person to have taken his or her life. Suicide is a highly complex outcome of severe distress, not necessarily an impulsive reaction to a breakup, a failure, or a demotion.
We lose far too many young people to suicide every year. Our country has made a monumental step in reducing these rates, by decriminalising suicide; however, there is still a lot to do. While the Government can work on policy, and professionals can work on making mental health services more accessible, what society can do today is start changing the way we talk about suicide.
While changing our language around suicide is imperative, it is also crucial to educate ourselves regarding culturally popularised fads related to suicide. One of the newest threats to the safety of youth right now is the infamous Blue Whale Challenge. The internet game, that has claimed many victims in India and around the world, consists of a terrifying series of tasks assigned by an anonymous internet administrator. Each task seems to increasingly desensitise participating individuals to death, such as instructing them to watch scary videos in the middle of the night or dangle their legs off the roof of a building.
Parents and guardians of individuals who display unusual behaviours need to monitor internet activities to make sure they are not involved in such challenges and games. For younger children, setting ground rules on internet usage, using website blockers and parental controls, and discussing risks of unsafe internet use can help prevent them from getting involved in risky activities. If parents do find evidence of suspicious behaviour, they should contact a mental health professional right away.
Similarly, friends, teachers, bosses, and other responsible individuals should identify evidence of risky behaviours and approach the person in a nonjudgmental way. Asking if they can help in any way and lending a listening ear can give more information about the person's mental frame of mind. Finally, a mental health professional can assess the individual for risk of suicide and intervene in an effective manner.
Nitika Gupta is a Psychologist at Mpower – The Centre, a single window operation designed to develop an effective model for child and adolescent mental health.