Suicide is a sister of rape

Divya Guha
Divya GuhaDec 16, 2014 | 16:07

Suicide is a sister of rape

At the beginning of the 19th century, most countries around the world had laws that provided for punishment, including jail sentences, for persons who attempted suicide. Imagine being hanged for cutting your own throat? Now, most but not all countries have decriminalised suicide even though decriminalisation never increased suicides; rates tend to decline in countries after decriminalisation. India took this step just last week.


Why it took so long is probably because it was left too long to sociology and the police who mostly blamed relatives or madness; and the relatives, in a fog about the circumstances, would blame the dead individual’s errant impulse. The libertarian or enlightenment thought process that we have absolute right over ourselves, too, is a foreign country in Bharat. There is little redemption for an Indian suicide. Our dominant ethic is that people must just get on with their lives; they are damn well expected to cope.

Suicide is a sister of rape. It is as little understood as rape was before a young, aspiring physiotherapist had to die. And like rape it happens to the rich and poor, young and old, the proud and the wary. Suicide is violent and its treatment by public bodies as a health emergency arises from the alarming statistics the world is seeing at the moment.

People will kill themselves for no apparent reason, at the height of their youth and success like Italian poet Cesare Pavese who said: "no one ever lacks a good reason for suicide". Impulse is also made much of. To outsiders such an act may seem motiveless, even perverse. But it seems mystifying that people will one day hop into the jaws of death as easily as they might bite into a bar of chocolate. Derelicts die, many homosexual and transgender people cannot cope, a growing number of teenagers are killing themselves. Notably, among young people 15 to 29 years of age, suicide is the second leading cause of death globally.


The official list of vulnerable groups is long and not all suicides make it to the official lists. When people attempt suicide, are they like the Stoics, coolly and rationally jumping off the edge of their reason? Or is reason in a closed psychic world less reliable? What Sylvia Plath in the Bell Jar called stewing on one’s own sour breath?

People vanish from family albums you never know how or why. Was it something we missed, or the fact that families come with default settings; preferring silence, homogeneity and the status quo. They focus on the similarity of their noses, and the same values – which isn’t a bad thing – but what when something discomfiting crops up; like a gay son, an underperforming teenager, the poor divorcee, the one who sucked embarrassingly at her thumb in her 20s, the one who was not bright at all, the wayward, pretty one – all examples of attempted suicides or suicides I have known second or first hand? It’s carnage. Families are often the problem, but also potentially, the solution.

Suicide is misunderstood, concealed from open discussions, puzzled over. To offer sentimentality or academia in response to when someone becomes a victim of their own despair is inadequate, possibly redundant. When people despair and relatives and friends think that they will come through –is when the discussion must begin. Most people who succumb to taking their own lives want desperately to survive. Prevention is the only possibility; as for solutions: none exist.


The WHO classifies suicide as "intentional death" which also includes interpersonal violence and armed conflict. Globally suicides account for 56 per cent of all violent deaths. More men die at their own hands than women do but while in the developed world as many as three times more men than women will kill themselves, in poorer countries this gap shrinks. The methods used reflect on changing societies, too.

Pesticide self-poisoning is the cause of a third of all global suicides – which means small scale farmers arrive at this point all too often – India fares badly here, too. I once found myself looking for suicide data that excluded farmer suicide and was surprised at how we treat tragedy, like something sanitised that can be halved and quartered like a cut of red meat. Statistics are unreliable – they can be window dressed. For instance, the suicide rate in Japan, which was among the highest in the world has gone down but concurrently the number of "involuntary" drownings went up.

In countries that are developing fast, suicide is rising fast. In China, Hong Kong and Singapore, death by jumping from a high building became the most commonly used method in the early 90s. In the late 90s, a strange epidemic took hold of Hong Kong and spread to Taiwan where suicides were using barbecue coal to choke themselves on carbon monoxide, and within eight years this became the most common means used to die.

The US links evidence across institutions to connect trends – in its Big Brotherly way – and make demographic conclusions to hone prevention programmes. But it is easy to see that external factors have little to do with suicide – given suicide is disproportionately higher in industrialised nations. Besides, hardship does not always lead to despair: it may bring out a certain bloody-mindedness that enabled George Orwell and JK Rowling to become serious artists.

And let’s be clear, the question of euthanasia does not come into this discussion because suicide is not assisted or rational. I knew a depression sufferer who had worked it out to the very last detail how she wanted to die and her primary worry was that there should be "no mess left behind". Who is missing the point here? The suicide or the policymakers who look for ways to ban rope and pesticide? But it is still widely considered a "personal" problem not to be discussed publicly, a social taboo. Despite the evidence that many deaths are preventable, suicide is too often a low priority for governments.

It’s not all depressing though. To focus on vulnerable persons including those who have previously attempted suicide has proved helpful – as for every suicide there are many more attempted suicides. Moreover, bereaved families and friends of people who have died by suicide also need care and support. Suicide is really like a peripheral incident that can start a war. Reporting suicides without fear of legal recrimination is vital to estimate the true extent of the issue and to ensure that people are not deterred from seeking help.

Last updated: December 16, 2014 | 16:07
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