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Death by choice

Though unemployment and poverty are cited as reasons for suicide, stress, depression, emotional neglect and abuse are the other factors that cannot be overruled. VISA RAVINDRAN on the need for counselling and reinforcing values of self worth to help combat rising suicide rates.

Children today face as much anxiety and mental trauma as adults.

Deepa (16), daughter of a postman, committed suicide after she, along with a group of students, was punished by her teacher for copying in the exams. When pleading with the teacher did not help, Deepa, fearing her father, hanged herself from a tree by the riverside.

A 20-year-old woman immolated herself after being tortured by her husband and in-laws for dowry. She had been married for two years and had an 11-month-old child.

Saraswathi killed her two young daughters and then committed suicide because her husband assaulted her during a domestic quarrel. So did Justin Paulraj, unable to bear the death of his wife; Mariappan because he suspected his wife's fidelity and Gandhimathi because her husband constantly assaulted her under the influence of liquor.

THESE instances of suicide were all reported to have taken place in Tirunelveli district. A local psychiatrist said that 260 persons had attempted suicide in the area in a span of six months.

These reports have been collected over just a week from leading Chennai newspapers. While unemployment and poverty are most often cited as the common reasons for deep depression and suicide, these instances suggest deeper motivating factors starting from humiliation and fear of parental discipline in Deepa's case to the inability to face up to extreme physical and mental torture in the other cases. While not underestimating the serious nature of the above causes, raising self-esteem, along with correct and timely counselling could reduce the incidence of suicides.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) report on mental health says: "Over 95,000 Indians killed themselves in 1997, equal to one suicide every six minutes. One in every three was in the 15-29 year age group. Between 1987 and 1917, the suicide rate rose from 7.5 to 10.03 per 1,00,000 population. Of India's four major cities, Chennai's rate of 17.23 is the highest. India has no national policy or programme for suicide prevention and for a population of a billion there are only 3,500 psychiatrists." The same report also states that Finland, which had a very high suicide rate, has successfully brought it down and the reduction is probably related to a reduction of alcohol consumption and an increase in the consumption of antidepressant medication.

The Tirunelveli incidents given above prompted Dr. Panneerselvam, a psychiatrist, to say that suicides were preventable through counselling and other means because those attempting suicide express their desire for death several times before resorting to it. Rev. Antony Cruz, working with an NGO in the area, is of the opinion that the incidents reflected lack of real love in families, as with genuine love, the parents would only wish that their children should grow up well in life. The District Collector attributes them "to a certain extent to consumerism". Here, mutual suspicion among spouses, alcoholism and frustration with life emerge as the causes for suicide and infanticide.

But an article in the Hindustan Times, taking off on the shocking suicide of an eight-year-old in Delhi, discusses rising stress and depression levels among children in urban India. Parental expectations, rising levels of competition, pressure during examination time and a breakdown of traditional family structures are factors that accelerate this alarming trend. In addition, a time of great and rapid social change brings fear and insecurity to people of all ages and these are absorbed almost unconsciously by the young and the very old, who are the most vulnerable. The inability to cope with change causes great stress that translates into depression.

"Everybody wants their child to become an Albert Einstein," a school principal is quoted as saying and psychiatrists remark on the number of patients they are counselling who are as young as seven or eight and the climbing graph of patients in their early teens. Emotional neglect, physical abuse, squabbling parents and pressure for better performance, being shunted from class to class and tuition to tuition are described as the reasons for unmanageable stress and depression among children. There were also stray cases of unwell mothers and alcoholic fathers. Inculcating good values in the formative years, getting to know the children and their friends, not giving them too much money or gifts were recommended by experts on good parenting, according to the Hindustan Times article.

Significant changes in temperament, lethargy, lack of interest in anything, inability to concentrate, irritability, constant physical complaints, too little or too much sleep and lack of communication are some of the signs of stress and depression that parents and teachers should look out for. The present system of education that lays too much emphasis on exams and marks, homework and preparation that take so much time that there is none left for play or even interaction with friends and family and above all the absence of a listening ear, lead to behavioural problems that develop into more serious forms of mental imbalance.

The portrayal in film and TV serials of young girls committing suicide for various reasons — not wanting to be a burden to parents, failure in love, inability to bear humiliation, emotional dialogue placing suicide above living with humiliation and sometimes even praising self-immolation as a manifestation of undying love/ trust/ commitment/ courage — have their part to play in encouraging an emotional and impulsive mindset in a hugely film-oriented public. One of the remedies could be in using this powerful medium to influence the audience positively.

NGOs like Befrienders International and Sneha provide a listening ear and several websites offer counselling for the depressed and suicide-prone. Removing the social stigma still attached to seeking psychiatric counselling will help large numbers of the mentally and psychologically confused, as will better parenting and reinforcing the importance of the family as an emotional anchor. The value of a human life and respect for all life should be inculcated, self-esteem enhanced and confidence built up. In the present condition of fractured families, this should become the objective of all those who have the opportunity to contribute to the security of the young. When the long shadows of lack and want and need threaten to blight all hope, it is necessary to build up the sources of light. For only then can one move beyond despair.

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