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Suicides linked to banal policies

india Updated: Oct 16, 2006 13:30 IST
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Before you finish reading this page, perhaps in the next 10 minutes, some 300 people would attempt and 20 would succeed in committing suicide somewhere in the world.

More young adults die from suicides than from AIDS, congenital defects, heart and neural strokes, cancer, pneumonia, and lung diseases combined, according to the World Health Organization. More people kill themselves than are killed in wars, terrorist violence and murders put together.

In societies like India, where the common man’s social awareness is abysmal, we underestimate the problem for two main reasons: First, we believe that suicide has always been around and, therefore, we can not help matters beyond a point; and second, we associate the phenomenon with dense mysteries of the human mind rather than with everyday social occurrences.

A policy-related phenomenon

As a result, we rarely hold prosaic government policies or preventable mental health issues responsible for suicides. Even the most predictable social triggers do not result in policy intervention despite the fact that more than 500 Indians kill themselves every day, according to National Crime Records Bureau figures.

We should be worried because the number of suicides in India is consistently rising and the victims are increasingly at the height of their potential earning capabilities. The most vulnerable age group, for both men and women, is between 35 and 44 years of age, according to WHO.

Basic sociology, no rocket science

French sociologist Emile Durkheim pioneered empirical methods to study collective tendencies as far back as in mid 19th century. He collected statistics from many European countries to prove that most suicides were attributable to tangible factors like a society’s moral guidelines, its unfair division of labour, its lopsided stages of industrialization or simply an individual’s improper integration in society.

Sociology today is a more precise field. Hundreds of studies are available on work, family or urbanization related pressures. Many societies are translating this knowledge bank into strategies and services like ready mental health treatment, restricting access to lethal means (gun control, secure access to pesticides) community sensitization, quick crisis response and rehabilitation for survivors.

Historical consensus against suicide

Suicide is a complex psycho-social phenomenon linked to extreme pain and anxiety. Its root cause leaves an individual deeply anguished within and his quest for relief pushes him to the brink. Most religions reject killing of self but suicides have somehow sneaked into most mythologies. The boxes below list these historical paradoxes and the story below left examines common causes of suicides.

In the age of reason, most philosophers have contested the individual’s right to end his life from moral or ethical standpoints. The crux of the argument is that liberty is indeed about choices but taking one’s own life precludes the individual’s ability to make further choices.

What needs to be done?

India’s own experience with its high numbers of farmer suicides clearly establishes many firm  patterns. The story below right shows that the reasons and consequences of the farmers’ actions have been nearly identical at most places. Over half a dozen rigorous studies and surveys have prescribed interventions like low interest credit to increased public spending on agriculture.

The guidelines of WHO and the International Association of Suicide Prevention are so succinct that they have shown dramatic results in many countries. The bottom story shows that global solutions are all there but policy interventions are nowhere in sight.

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