Field notes Society

No glory in dying

The Puducherry beach has seen numerous recent suicides (representational image)   | Photo Credit: Alison McCauley

Suganya and her husband Ramakrishnan, in their 50s, stay in a one-bedroom apartment in Kuruchikuppam, a stone’s throw from Puducherry’s popular White Town. Despite or maybe because of its proximity, Kuruchikuppam is the polar opposite of White Town. There are no tourists here and the houses are more functional; congested living spaces, rather than French châteaux.

When their niece Ratna, 16, did not pass her Class X board exams last year, they grounded her. “We told her she won’t be allowed to go to the movies for a while,” says Suganya.

Two weeks later, Ratna committed suicide. “We’d gone to our textile shop and when we came back…,” Suganya is unable to hold back her tears any longer and can’t finish the sentence. Ratna was found hanging from the ceiling fan. It was too late to save her. Catching her breath, Suganya says, “We had no idea she’d do something like this.”

About five kilometres away, in the lower-middle class neighbourhood of Lawspet, we meet Karthik Ruban, 21. His last suicide attempt was three years ago. He had tried swallowing sleeping pills. “In college, the girl I was in love with broke up with me,” says Ruban, “I was in a really bad place for a couple of years, drinking a lot. I attempted suicide three times. Thankfully, my parents found me in time and good counselling helped.” Ruban is now among the fiercest advocates of suicide prevention and awareness in Puducherry.

A shameful record

According to the latest figures available with the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), Puducherry has posted the highest rate of suicide for the fourth year in a row. This number is an alarming four times higher than the national average. The rate of suicide is the measure of the number of suicides per one lakh population in any given year.

While the all-India suicide rate was 10.6 in 2015, it was 43.4 in Puducherry. This was a three point increase from 2014, when it was 40.4. Even allowing for statistical quagmire and the fact that NCRB figures are collated from police records across India, which can at times be unreliable, this is still an incredibly high rate. It becomes more unusual when you consider that the region is comparatively less populous than the rest of the country.

In 2015, for instance, more than 1.3 lakh people committed suicide across India. Puducherry accounted for 711 of these deaths even though it accounts for only 0.1% of the population. Most of these suicides, both in Puducherry and across the country, have been attributed to what NCRB records as ‘Family Problems’ and ‘Illness’. Among those below 18 years of age, ‘Family Problems’, ‘Failure in examination’ and ‘Illness’ are listed as the leading causes for suicides. “While the statistics do need to be read with a pinch of salt, it is true that suicide is a major issue among young people here,” says Siva Mathiyazhagan of the NGO Trust for Youth and Child Leadership (TYCL), which is at the forefront of counselling young people in Puducherry, and also runs a suicide helpline.

Says Mathiyazhagan, “There is poor support for those in distress in Pondy. Existing support systems are not accessible.” He believes that what’s needed urgently is a comprehensive analysis of the root cause. “Nearly three-quarters of them are between the ages of 15 and 34, so that is the group of people who need to be looked at.”

A woman shows the ID card of her daughter who killed herself

A woman shows the ID card of her daughter who killed herself   | Photo Credit: Alison McCauley


In Puducherry, suicide is a disturbing public health issue, and one that is attributed to a variety of reasons. Worryingly, there seem to be few barriers to finding ways to end one’s life. Peculiar to this region and to the Tamil Nadu districts that border Puducherry is suicide by the consumption of the oleander seed, which can prove rapidly fatal if medical attention is not immediately provided.

Gayathri is a field nurse with a prominent medical school. She deals with cases of suicide everyday, and says, “People use all kinds of methods to take their lives. The oleander seed, hanging, medicine overdose.” Startlingly, Gayathri is herself a suicide survivor. “I was going through family problems and despite being a nurse I took the wrong decision. Thankfully, I was saved in time. I can understand and talk to families in an empathetic manner because of my personal experience,” she says.

Rampant alcoholism is a major health issue in Puducherry. This, when added to a high rate of unemployment among educated youngsters, a repressed society, high academic pressure, indebtedness, and a culture that glorifies suicide makes for a potent mix. As Ruban says, “My friends here think it’s an alright thing to do; for the smallest reasons.” Troublingly, there does not seem to be enough awareness that a tendency towards suicide is a sign of mental ill-health and that it can be addressed.

“In the seven years I have been here, I have witnessed a wide array of cases,” says Dr. Ravi Philip, head of the department of psychiatry at Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research (JIPMER). “We receive at least five cases of attempted suicide a week. We have also noticed a trend where family members of survivors also attempt to do the same. Suicide is a complex psycho-social issue and it is difficult to find the underlying reasons behind it. Often, it’s just a question of people falling through the cracks in the system and society.”

Acting to prevent

Even though Puducherry does have a few crisis intervention centres and suicide helplines, they are hardly enough.

Beside the portrait of her husband who hanged himself

Beside the portrait of her husband who hanged himself   | Photo Credit: Alison McCauley


“We do have a helpline where young people can call, but it’s a small set-up and there are only so many calls we can take,” says Mathiyazhagan. “The need of the hour is counselling, to reach out to vulnerable sections of the population, in poorer districts, schools, and colleges. Awareness drives to explain the seriousness of the problem are also important,” he says.

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day and the Puducherry government has organised a series of awareness programmes, but it does not yet have a concerted prevention plan or helpline.

“We organise counselling in schools and colleges through our education department. The health department handles many cases in our psychiatry wards and counselling centres,” says Dr. K.V. Raman, Director (Health and Family Welfare Services), but he adds, “The figures sometimes look more serious than they really are because of Puducherry’s small size and population.”

There are a few welcome initiatives from elsewhere. JIPMER has opened a crisis counselling centre for children and adolescents and is also running a pilot programme with the Kendriya Vidyalaya School in its campus that offers counselling for children.

Survivors like Ruban are also fighting the malaise. Last year, Ruban and two friends went on a 615 km cycle rally from Puducherry to Mahe to raise awareness against suicide. “Running and cycling have given me the self-confidence to deal with my issues. I have started training for triathlons and hope to compete professionally soon,” says Ruban. He is also talking to friends and others who he thinks are at risk. “I know what they’re going through, so I’m able to talk them through their troubles and, more than anything else, listen to them.”

*Some names changed to protect identity

The author is an independent journalist based in Chennai. He tweets @sibi123.

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Printable version | Oct 15, 2021 4:54:38 PM |

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