Fortunately, common sense and compassion have generally prevailed and in most developed countries suicide has been decriminalised, though there are still some holdouts that apparently want to further punish those who suffer the most (here's looking at you, Singapore). India is the latest country to have come to its senses. Prime Minister Narendra Modi hit on the brilliant idea that some care and support for those who are suicidal might be more helpful than incarceration.
“Why does a person commit suicide?” Modi said at a recent election rally. “The person who attempts suicide does not need punishment but counselling and empathy.”
Says an IBNLive report: “Attempt to suicide that was punishable by a one-year jail term is no longer a crime with the government deciding to remove Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) to decriminalise the offence.”
About 800,000 people commit suicide worldwide every year, of which 135,000 (17%) were in India in 2010, though Indian suicide rates are likely grossly underreported—one study put the figure at 187,000; another report claims 258,075 people committed suicide in India in 2012, more than any other country in the world (though to be fair, only China has a greater population). Poisoning (33%), hanging (31%) and self-immolation (9%) were the primary methods used to commit suicide in 2010. Unlike in the West, the majority of suicides in India are committed by young adults—the under-30s—with two-thirds being male. “Family problems” and “illness” are the leading causes but as with any developing country, the high suicide rate in India can be partly understood as being the result of socioeconomic deprivation. More than 11% of all suicides in India are committed by farmers, many of whom are struggling financially.
Mental distress can of course pay a visit upon the affluent, the seeemingly-privileged, too. In their 2009 book The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, authors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett demonstrate that the more unequal a society, the greater the health and social problems—poorer health (and mental health), more obesity, larger prison populations, more teenage pregnancies, lower levels of literacy, and so on. “Inequality seems to make countries socially dysfunctional across a wide range of outcomes," they conclude. And these societal ills in unequal states are not concentrated just among the poor but are significant across the board. The Scandinavian countries and Japan tend to do well; the U.S. (and the more unequal U.S. states), the U.K. and Portugal fare poorly. India's extremes of inequality are notorious—only a dozen years ago economist and philosopher Amartya Sen wrote that two-thirds of Indian women and a third of Indian men could not read or write—and are most vividly apparent in its cities, like Mumbai, where beggars, businessmen, paupers and princes are thrown together in close quarters, where gleaming glass-and-steel offices and hotels rise up above the shanty towns at their feet--more than half of this wealthy city's 14 million people are slum-dwellers. No wonder many find living in such circumstances too hard to bear. And mental health service provision in India is woeful according to a a recent Human Rights Watch report, "Treated worse than animals."
Yet curiously, suicide was the only social marker Wilkinson and Pickett found which was worse in more equal countries. They partly attribute this to the idea that in more collectively-minded societies, you might be more inclined to blame yourself when things go wrong rather than The System or other people or the world in general—the book notes that suicide is often inversely proportional to homicide.
Regardless, suicidal ideation can be indiscriminate, as shown by wealthy, talented stars like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams, who both took their own lives this year, In August, The Guardian's Dean Burnett wrote a blog post about the suicide of Williams, specifically addressing those who describe such an act as “selfish" (or “cowardly” or “taking the easy away out"). That it is none of these things should be obvious, but the post hit a nerve, and has been shared more than 432,000 times. “A brilliant but tortured individual has taken his own life, and this is a tragedy," wrote Burnett. “But levelling ignorant accusations of selfishness certainly won’t prevent this from happening again. People should never be made to feel worse for suffering from something beyond their control."
Suicidal thoughts can plague a broke farmer in Kerala, a bereft celebrity in Hollywood, or anyone in between. They can come to a relative, a friend, a colleague, a neighbour. They can come to you and to me. Anyone with suicidal feelings needs support, reassurance, care and contact—not condemnation and incarceration. With the legal change in India and the generally compassionate response to Williams' death, maybe, by small turns, the world becomes just a little kinder.
• If you are feeling suicidal, or if you know someone who is, please:
—talk to someone: a family member, friend, colleague and your GP:
—call the Samaritans: tel: 08457-90-90-90: www.samaritans.org;
—go to the section on suicidal feelings at Mind's website to understand more about what might be going on with you, causes and ways of coping;
—click on my Help page and find access to other immediate support.