Suicides as Social Commentary

September 11, 2015 at 9:15 PMSep (Activism, Musings, Slice Of Life, Soliloquy)

One of the most important Hindi plays of the 20th century is Andha Yug by Dharamvir Bharti. Suicide is a recurring element in the play and Vidura, in the play, predicts that in the kingdom of Yudhishtira, suicide will flourish. The play looks at suicide as an indicator of despair and grief over social and ethical collapse and the dehumanization of individuals and the society as a whole.

painting by Kikyz

painting by Kikyz

The shastras do not approve of suicide. The only suicide- stretched as self willed death- is permissible only to kings who have completed their duties and have handed over their responsibilities and to the ascetics who have renounced the world. But there has always been the practice of sallekha, sati and fatal pilgrimage which were self-willed deaths.

But these are in a way different from suicides as we look at it. To understand this let us look at suicides or the threat of suicides in not a play based on Mahabharata but in Mahabharata itself.

Duryodhana threatens to kill himself when he feels ashamed of his lesser attainments once and later once when he is being saved by his enemy Arjuna in the war-field. When Duryodhana threatens to kill himself Karna also threatens to kill himself because to him life without Duryodhana is unimaginable and unlivable. Once a Brahmin comes to Karna asking for his armour and earrings. Though Karna knows that taking out his armour and earrings can shorten his life he gives it because he has given a word to the Brahmin that his wishes will be fulfilled. Karna known for sticking to his words preferred death over the infamy of breaking vow. Amba kills herself only to take rebirth and fulfill a task which has taken upon herself. Pandu knows that making love will end his life yet he goes ahead with the act of making love which kills him. In a way it can be seen as Pandu’s decision to end a life since death is more preferable that a life where pleasure is denied.

Unlike the ascetics who have renounced the world or the kings who are done with their duties or the acts of fatal pilgrimage or sallekha, the above mentioned examples show that the threat to suicides and the acts of suicides are not driven by any kind of detachment but attachment, not any kind of indifference but a deep sense of connect and involvement with life. Suicides are a way of expressing the deep connect and attachment with life and world at the gut level.

Vincent Van Gogh, says Alexandra Timmer, “used to eat yellow paint because he thought it would get the happiness inside him.” The fact that yellow paint and happiness are not correlated is ignorable to the fact that the paint was toxic and could kill. But as Timmer says, “If you are so unhappy that even the maddest ideas could possibly work, like painting the walls of your internal organs yellow, then you are going to do it. Its really no different than falling in love or taking drugs. There is a greater risk of getting your heart broken or overdosing, but people still do it every day because there was always that chance it could make things better.” And as Timmer rightly says, “Everyone has their yellow paints.”

Vincent Van Gogh finally committed suicide. While yellow pain by its toxic nature itself was suicidal, by the narration of Timmer we are forced to think if suicide was a yellow paint! And what drives Vinct Van Gogh to consume yellow paint is the need to feel better. Was it the same with his suicide too? Interestingly the biography of Vincent Van Gogh penned by Irving Stone is titled ‘Lust for Life.’

Painting by Stuyvesant Van Veen

Painting by Stuyvesant Van Veen

While speaking of suicide- condemning it or in attempts to understand it- people generally use a lot of images and analogies. One analogy which appealed to me the most is that of the person jumping off the high-rise which has caught fire. In such a situation the person is not desiring the fall but is fearing the fire. Similarly a person committing or attempting suicide is not fancying death or finds death appealing but the terror of some fire is consuming her/him and has reached an unendurable level. The terror of falling is as same as us, but its that window which is the only hope to escape from the fire.

Death is not a problem. Dying is. So, it’s not true that people who commit suicide or attempt suicide are weak. Suicide is not a sign of weakness. Quite contrary to the common belief, suicide a step taken in desperation, needs courage, needs strength.

Lest I be mistaken for saying that suicide, or the attempt of it, is an indicator of love for life and strength and courage I must say that I am stressing on these at the very beginning not to romanticize suicide. I am stressing on them because the very fact that suicide is an indicator of love for life and a symbol of strength and courage is the biggest hope for suicide prevention. Without this hope, which stems from the heart of suicide and attempts of suicide, we cannot begin to speak of suicide prevention because as the protagonist of the Oscar winning film ‘The Sea Inside’ says, “Living is a right. Not an obligation.” Collectively we have the responsibility on all of us to make this world a place where everyone would enjoy their right to live.

I say that we all have this responsibility because every suicide in a way is a social murder. And every time “when the bell tolls”, to use an expression of the English poet John Donne wrote, “it tolls for the” since “no man is an island” and “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”

Let me elaborate on this but before that I urge that we all add pressure on the Government to revoke IPC 309 which criminalizes suicide attempts. Not just because it creates a stigma which we need to fight about suicide attempts and because the one attempting suicide needs help and not the wrath of legalities. It has to be revoked also because the person herself/ himself is not solely responsible for the attempt.

***

In the past one year, as per records which is likely to have missed some numbers, around 1,500 farmers have committed suicide in the state. With such a depressing number before us we had our central minister say the cause for these suicides were, “love failures, impotency, dowry and illness,” which was not just insensitive and inhuman but also insane and cruel. In saying so the minister blamed the victim and held them responsible for their suicides. But one of the farmers named Rajendra in the district of Mandya clearly mentioned in his suicide note that the negligence of Government was the cause for his death. It, in a way, is true of every famer suicide. Its when the Government doesn’t want to take responsibility that it makes a statement as this blaming the victim, like we all generally do when someone commits suicide or attempts one. The Government doesn’t want to see what its role was in the suicide of farmers like in any suicide we do not want to see what our role, as a part of the society, was.

artist unknown

artist unknown

It should shame us that the Maharashtra government wants to do some mind mapping in the districts of Yavatmal ad Osmanabad to prevent farmer suicides. On this occasion of World Suicide Prevention Day, in Mangalore the District Legal Services Authority and the Health Department are jointly holding a programme for over 100 farmers who will be address by two psychiatrists. The intention of this programme is to, as reported in the newspapers, dissuade farmers from suicide. This is ridiculous and embarrassing and shameful because we do not want to see the larger economic and policy matters which are actually pushing these farmers to the edge and off the edge and are living, happily, in this illusion that farmer suicides are triggered by some mental illness and it can be treated.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau of the recorded suicides in the year 2014 only 4.3% were farmer suicides while 18% were suicides committed by house wives! Journalist P. Sainath who has extensively reported on farmer suicides says that the definition of a farmer for officials does not include women agricultural laborers. They are all just housewives and not farmers. This could be one of the reason for the statistics of house wives suicide shooting the sky. But within this we can actually see the gender insensitivity of our administration and society at large too.

The main causes for the suicides of house wives are said to be: dowry, child marriage and domestic violence. All these causes are actually an off shoot of a patriarchal system which is masculine by nature and high on sperm. Its this patriarchal system which is actually pushing so many women and girls off the edge.

While speaking of patriarchy we shouldn’t forget about the pressure of patriarchy on men. The reasons that Duryodhana gives in Mahabharata while threatening to end his life are a reflection of the pressure of patriarchy on men. All psychiatrists and psychologist are witnessed to the gender difference among their patients. Men do not seek help easily. The reason for this again can be traced back to the patriarchal system which doesn’t allow men to be weak or accept that they are weak. Many do get crushed under this pressure, like many women do. It is not the individual weakness which causes or pushes the individuals to commit or attempt suicide but the patriarchal system.

In the month of April a Delhi based doctor named Priya Vedi committed suicide and in her suicide note kind of accused Kamal Vedi for her decision to commit suicide. Kamal Vedi was married to Priya Vedi though he was a gay and hadn’t spoken about it to her before wedding. She also spoke of her husband being physically violent to her. While it was wrong on the part of Kamal Vedi to have not spoken about his sexuality to Priya Vedi and even the more wrong to go ahead with the marriage being sure of his sexuality, what we cannot overlook is the hegemony of heterosexual and homophobic society which doesn’t have the required atmosphere for homosexuals to openly speak of their sexuality leave alone practicing it without being secretive about it. To my mind the its not the hands of Kamal Vedi which the Neptune’s ocean cannot clean but the hands of a homophobic society.

In the year 2010 one Pramod committed suicide in Delhi because he couldn’t arrange the money required get his daughter admitted in a playschool. The disturbing economic inequality that prevails and not to forget how wealth flaunts itself and in a mocking way seduces the poor is evident in the case of Pramod for whom getting an admission for his daughter in a play school was also a hope to get out of poverty in some distant future. The economic inequality of this society pushed Parmod off the edge, as I look at it.

The infamous Mangalore pub attack is etched in the public memory. But what did not get registered in the public memory is an incident which took place in a town named Moodbidri just few days after the pub attack in Mangalore. A school going girl- Ashwini- travelled by bus to her school daily. One day she was attacked by the Hindutva fringe group for being friendly with a guy of another religion. Later the group took the girl to the police station. Her parents were summoned and the girl was made to write a letter of apology. That night Ashwini, aged 15, committed suicide. A control-freak regressive group wanting to dictate norms and values of a society made a girl still opening up to life and world commit suicide and all the perfume of Arabia cannot make their hand smell sweet since there are blood stains on them, the blood of Ashwini.

painting by John Everett Milliais

painting by John Everett Milliais

Two deaths were reported from the University of Hyderabad in the year 2013. Venkatesh and Pulayal Raju. Venkatesh was a first generation educated PhD scholar in the University who for two years did not get the lab for his research even when entitled for it and when the remaining of his batch did get the lab. It is not a coincidence that Venkatesh and Pulayal Raju were Dalits and so was Senthil another student at University of Hyderabad who committed suicide in the year 2008. Nobody would see suicides of Dalits as Dalit atrocity while it actually is. The highly discriminatory and cruel system of caste makes life difficult and also impossible for those at the bottom subjecting them to powerlessness, humiliation, discrimination, poverty and several other forms of oppression turning them into an intersection of several oppressions.

An under-reported issue of every country is the suicide in the defense/ military. The state always likes to hush the suicides or suicide attempts which take place as a part of the political and social movements as a mark of protest against the state. But every country speaks in the loudest voice possible about suicide bombers, the terrorists. Jasson Manning, a professor at West Virgina University, hits the bull’s eye while saying, “A state that increases its domination of citizens provokes suicide protests, while state that increases its domination on foreigners provokes terrorist attacks.”

A farmer set himself on fire in Assam right in front of the state secretariat office last year. Such attempts are made across the world at different points of history. For years now the indefinite fast of Irom Sharmila has been punctuated by several arrests for “attempting suicide.” For a moment lets consider the protest method of Irom Sharmila as attempted suicide. Such protest through suicides hints at suicides, in general, being a protest.

Probably suicide is a language where the person is speaking at the cost of life. Probably suicide is, as we have seen through some examples, is not because of any mental disorder but because of a certain kind of social-political-economical order and suicide is a protest against it. These suicides speak not of mental illness but of an illness in our socio-political-economical system which needs to be attended to.

If the history of the world is to be written by joining the dots of suicides then probably we will get a clear picture of what exactly is wrong with the world and what needs to be attended to immediately.

***

painting by Edvard Munch

painting by Edvard Munch

Obviously the question would come that if the entire system is so flawed then why only those who committed suicide did so and the rest did not. I agree that there are psychological reasons which also play a role in pushing an individual to commit or attempt suicide. There are different kind of relationship that we form which, if I am not wrong, in psychological terms are called as thick relationship and thin relationships. So at times with one particular incident or speech we form such thick relationship that the slightest disturbances with that external factor causes immense internal disturbance. But as it has been discussed, by many, what if the external object itself is so strong that a thick relationship is formed? Let us also agree that some people are weak and vulnerable than the rest. But isn’t the human society expected to be more caring about such people than blame them for being weak? Plus are human beings formed in vacuum? No. Human beings are products of circumstances. It’s the larger world in which human beings get formed either as weak or strong.

***

Agree that there are mental health issues which push people to commit suicide. According to a website dedicated to suicide prevention i.e. suicide.org the most common mental illness which pushes people to suicide is depression. So without touching upon other kind of mental illness I will just stick to the mental illness called depression and try understanding it, while having my own doubts on whether depression is an illness or not.

There are four major theories to the understanding of depression. One is the existentialist theory which says that humans feel a sense of meaninglessness and also lack of purpose along with lack of control in life which leads to depression. The cognitive theory places conscious thought in the centre and sees it as the determining factor in human behavior, emotion and change. According to Albert Ellis people’s emotional disturbances are caused by idiosyncratic philosophies and constructed beliefs that lead to unhappiness and pain. At the surface these two theories actually hold the victims responsible for their actions. But, as discussed, neither emotions nor thoughts of humans are entirely independent. They are an outcome of the interaction the mind has with world and life.

Medical science took an important turn when the Italian physician Bernardino Ramazzini started asking his patients, “What work do you do?” He saw a correlation between the kind of occupation people are involved in and their health condition. It should hold good for mental health too.

The third theory for the understanding of depression is the Marxist theory which believes that capitalism shifted the nature of work from being creative to productive and thus made the worker isolated from herself/ himself by making work a means to an end. This estrangement and disengagement, according to Marxist theory of depression, creates alienation. Extending the understanding from capitalism to a technology driven society Neil Postman says that new technologies and our relationship to them affect the way we feel about our lives, others and ourselves. Technological world, not surprisingly, has made way for more depression and more people being victims of depression.

potato eaters by Vincent Van Gogh

potato eaters by Vincent Van Gogh

The last of the four theories is the oppression theory which believes that depression is one of the main impacts of oppression. G.A. Allport observed that oppressed people internalize beliefs about themselves as propagated by the dominant groups and that leads to them feeling extremely and intensely insecure, guilty and ashamed. Farnz Fanon elaborated on how racism and colonialism is responsible for many types of mental health disorders including depression. According to him oppression leads to negation of self and it strips the oppressed of humaneness and leads to despair.

While oppression can affect the cognitive content and structure of humans, a condition of alienation can lead to sense of helplessness and lack of control along with meaninglessness. All these are interconnected and interrelated having multidimensional movement and cumulative movement too which push people off the edge.

***

Very often we get to hear people saying, while either speaking of depression or creativity, that creative people are prone to depression. But it appears to be the other way round- depressed people have the strength and energy in them to be creative. Anthony Storr is of the opinion that, “The creative process can be a way of protecting the individual against being overwhelmed by depression, a means of regaining a sense of mastery in those who have lost it, and, to a varying extent, a way of repairing the self damaged by bereavement or by the loss of confidence in human relationships which accompanies depression by whatever cause.”

Agreeing with Storr I wonder why creativity is not included in the long list of defense mechanism while it appears to be like one. It does have the quality of defending. It also has the quality of being therapeutic. So involving in creative process can actually be therapeutic to depression and suicidal tendencies.

painting by Pablo Picasso

painting by Pablo Picasso

A strange case in English where the word which is negative of its root word has become more popular than words which are not negative of its root-words is that of the word anesthesia. The root word is aisthesis meaning sense perception. The word anesthesia means absence of sensation. Aisthesis is also the root word for aesthetics which referred to art and art as enjoyed by the senses. The word anesthesia came into existence and entered common vocabulary with advances in medical science. While anesthesia is advancement in medical science and required too, I am invoking the word, its root word and its distant cousin to say that like anesthesia is required to do surgery, aesthetics can be used for therapy and should be used for healing.

Gabrielle Roth, a contemporary dancer, says, “In many shamanic societies, if you came to a medicine person complaining of being disheartened, dispirited, or depressed, they would ask one of four questions: “When did you stop dancing? When did you stop singing? When did you stop being enchanted by stories? When did you stop being comforted by the sweet territory of silence?” Such creative processes are a sign of health and the absence of them is a state of dis-ease. So probably engaging in such activities can revive mental and emotional health.

It is said that suicide is prevalent among some animals too. The ostrich, it is said, commits suicide if left alone, when devoid of company. Reading about the experiences of Viktor Frankle in the concentration camps, Slavomir Rawicz’s experience at the labour camp and his escape from there and also the experience of people in prisons show us the importance of human company to survive through tough depressive phases and times when things are closing down upon humans and suicide seems the only way out.

The autobiographical work of Mary Taylor titled ‘My Years in an India Prison’ speaks of how singing, human company was necessary to keep oneself sane it also speaks of how identifying with a larger cause which focuses on the greater larger good is also a way out of depression and a way one can make way for meaning in life out of life. Rich Furman and Kimberly Bender from the School of Social Work, Colorado State University propose social activism as a type of clinical intervention.

Since we have been seeing how the existing order of things in the world is depressive probably an active participation in changing it and changing it fundamentally can be liberating for oneself and the world in total, it appears.

***

The reason I invoke the thought proposed by Rich Furman and Kimberly Bender is because psychiatry as a field is quite controversial. While the existence of mental health issues/ disorder/ illness is undisputed, what is actually debatable and problematic is what becomes to be considered as an “illness” needing “treatment” and what kind of treatment shows how psychiatry plays into the maintaining of status-quo.

Michelle Foucault observes how the madman in the plays of Shakespeare is a genius in disguise and how primitive societies did not see it as an illness and made space for the mad within the society. But, he argues, at a later stage of history madness became an “illness” and asylums came into existence. Behind this he says is the mindset which sees people not employable and productive in the economic sense as abnormal people and hence the treatments in asylums involve vocational training.

soldiers and students (1962) by Jacob Lawrence

soldiers and students (1962) by Jacob Lawrence

In 1960s-70s black protestors during American civil rights protest were diagnosed as schizophrenic and institutionalized for violent behavior. Dissent is smashed by making the rebel and demand for rights by terming them as abnormal behavior.

Interestingly in the year 1980 the American Psychiatric Association added to their Manual of Mental Disorders a new “illness”. Shyness. Thus a new disease was invented in a capitalistic society where the workers are required to be more communicative, outgoing and assertive. So the shy people suddenly became people who needed treatment and correction.

While its true that mental illness/ disorders do exist and need medical help it is also true that psychiatry as a field of study and a discipline of medicine becomes a tool in the hands of establishment and pharmaceutical industry to maintain status-quo and increase medical consumerism.

The fight against suicide is also the battle against forces as these which wants to maintain the status quo and thus not allow us to change the world into a more egalitarian and human friendly one. Its sad that the establishment, at times, uses psychiatry and medicine fields to restrict and reduce the idea of treatment and healing only to individuals and not a social political and economical level.

***

Let me come back to where I started i.e. the Mahabharata. When Yudhishtira starts ruling the kingdom he is saddened and suggests that the Pandavas take to ascetic life which indicates his love for life had started eroding. That is when Bhima tells him that it is only by ruling the kingdom that war which was fought becomes meaningful. Similarly in this fight between the desire to live and the inability to stay alive the only way this fight can be made meaningful is by fighting not just the suicidal thought but triumphing over the conditions- medical and nonmedical- which pushes people to the edge and off the edge.

For this our notions of suicide and our approach towards combating suicide should, like Amba, commit suicide only to take rebirth in a different form and battle against the force that brought about the depressive tragic condition.

This battle is not a battle of the so called suicidal and mental ill. But it’s a battle of and for all of us because we all inhabit this world and we all are part of each others lives. Which means the healing of one means the healing of all and the healing of that one is connected to the healing of all. It’s a battle not just to prevent suicides but a battle to ensure that the world is not a suicidal place. It’s a complete liberation which the battle against suicides should envision.

Let me end on this note by quoting the Australian aboriginal artist and thinker Lilla Watson who beautifully said, “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

[Lecture delivered to PG students of Social Work and Psychology in and around Udupi on the occasion of World Suicide Prevention Day – 10 Sep 2015- at Dr. A.V. Baliga Memorial Hospital, Udupi]

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