Blaming technology for deaths by suicide is misguided

It takes the focus away from a comprehensive understanding of the issue

October 12, 2022 12:08 am | Updated 11:23 am IST

The purple blue ribbon for suicide prevention awareness

The purple blue ribbon for suicide prevention awareness | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Every year, when the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) releases statistics on deaths by suicide in India, the demand to address the issue grows louder. The most recent data for 2021, released on August 30, 2022, shows that suicide claimed 1,64,033 lives during that year.

Two decades into the 21st century, deaths by suicide remain a major source of social distress and public policy concern in India. Any loss of life is deeply unfortunate, but the notion of suicide is especially disturbing and beyond rationalisation for the affected family.

Blaming technology

One of the causes of suicide, which has been prevalent in contemporary discussions, is the expanding role of digital technologies. Aggravation of depression and other mental health issues leading to suicide is being repeatedly attributed to technology. Factors such as cyberbullying, loss of self-esteem due to social media, extreme binge-watching of online content or heavy reliance on virtual followers/communities for validation are all said to be contributing to the issue. It is clear that the more technology gains influence over the human condition, the starker will be its role in the best and worst of human experience.

However, it will serve us well to realise that technology is neither at the core of the problem nor the perfect solution for it. Suicide is a reality which society must respond to in the most sensitive and holistic manner possible. It is not the case that technology has no role to play in adverse mental health conditions or related cases of suicide; the issue is the sensational and misdirected analysis of the causes of suicides. This takes the focus away from a comprehensive understanding of the issue and a more appropriate solution to it.

For example, no one can deny the link between cyberbullying and suicidal thoughts and attempts. According to a study funded by the National Institutes of Health in the U.S., participants who experienced cyberbullying were more than four times as likely to report thoughts of suicide and attempts as those who did not. However, similar results are true even for those who are bullied in person. The conclusion is that the medium of bullying is not the sole culprit; it is the act of bullying itself that needs to be addressed. Awareness campaigns, sensitisation programmes, community support and counselling services are usually considered good solutions against bullying — cyber or otherwise.

Also read | A strict no to sensationalising, repetition of suicide stories, say psychiatrists

The case of Tamil Nadu

News reports regarding a spate of suicides, specifically in Tamil Nadu, also illustrate this point. Preliminary news reports associated several suicide incidents with gaming addiction, particularly with online rummy games. These reports elicited a heavy policy response from the Tamil Nadu government in the form of an ordinance, which banned most online games played for money, including rummy and poker. On closer examination, multiple independent studies, such as the one by Rotary’s Rainbow Project, found a high degree of exaggeration in reports associating deaths by suicide in the State with online rummy games.

The real reasons for these deaths were different from those earlier reported. Moreover, experts researching suicide, including Sandip Shah, Professor of Psychology at Shri Govind Guru University, Gujarat, made a direct representation to the Tamil Nadu government on insufficient data for the correlation between suicide and online gaming.

Analysis of the data from the NCRB on deaths by suicide in Tamil Nadu makes it evident that the policy response is not adequate to address the magnitude of the crisis in the State. Tamil Nadu has consistently had among the highest shares of reported deaths by suicide in the country, reporting over 11% of total cases for much of the previous decade, and nearly 19,000 cases in 2021 alone.

According to the NCRB, family problems, illness, substance abuse, and marriage/love-related issues alone contribute to more than two-thirds of the deaths by suicide in India. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the Tamil Nadu government to address these root causes and evolve a holistic policy response to minimise future cases. Rather than top-down policy formulations, focusing only on a few high-profile incidents, an inclusive community-based mental health and suicide-prevention approach may prove to be more effective in saving lives. Further, the State may consider how technological measures from service providers can also become a part of this policy response.

Use of technology

The Central government, on its part, is already embracing the potential role of technology in improving mental health outcomes for citizens. In February, it announced the National Tele-Mental Health Programme to provide access to free, round-the-clock mental health interventions in remote and underserved areas. Acknowledgement of suicidal thoughts and attempts to address a host of inter-related causes and effects are necessary to design effective and proportionate policy prescriptions. While technology is certainly an agent of this complex matrix, it can neither be seen as a root cause nor as a panacea.

Those in distress or having suicidal tendencies could seek help and counselling by calling any of the numbers in this link

Dhruv Garg and Dedipyaman Shukla are independent Delhi-based lawyers with interests in technology, law and policy

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