What is driving the young to suicide?

Experts are struggling to make sense of the new census data that shows suicide as the main cause of death among Indians aged 15 to 29


Growing crisis: Data released last month showed that around 18% of the deaths among young people in 2010-13 was attributed to suicide, as compared to 15.8% in 2004-06. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Growing crisis: Data released last month showed that around 18% of the deaths among young people in 2010-13 was attributed to suicide, as compared to 15.8% in 2004-06. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

New Delhi: When he returned home from France armed with an MBA degree, he expected—at the very least—to get a job that would pay him enough to recoup what he had spent on his studies abroad.

He rejected several offers saying they were not in line with his expectations. It bothered him that “my friends will laugh at me”. After three years in India, the man, in his early 20s, locked himself up in his room and stopped interacting with the world. One day, he swallowed a bunch of anti-anxiety pills. Thankfully, before he could add to India’s alarmingly high suicide statistics, his parents saved his life.

However, the 19-year-old from a Muslim family in Delhi was not as lucky. After he came out with the fact that he was gay, the teenager’s parents took him to a psychologist, asking the doctor to make their son “normal”. The teenager said he felt suffocated and didn’t think there was any place for him in this world. He hanged himself.

The two men are among a growing number of young people who are taking their own lives in India, ironically a country that is in the midst of a ‘demographic bulge’—endowed with a large population of youth.

Experts are struggling to make sense of new census data published last month, which says that suicide is the leading cause of death among people aged 15 to 29, with a sharp increase since 2004-06.

Around 18% of the deaths among young people in 2010-13 was attributed to suicide, as compared to 15.8% in 2004-06.

The data revealed that the proportion of young people resorting to suicide is even higher in rural areas, where nearly 19% of the deaths in the age group was due to suicide as compared with 16.5% in 2004-06. In urban areas, suicide at 14.7% was the second biggest killer in the age group, after motor vehicle accidents (15.3%).

But India is not only young—25 years from the rollout of economic reforms, it is also in the midst of unprecedented social and economic change. Increasing exposure to the world outside and a burgeoning middle class have led to rising aspirations among the young.

But a nation marked by growing economic inequalities and a history of social inequalities has been unable to keep pace with these aspirations, say experts.

“Much of this has to do with the aspirational revolution in the neoliberal economy... where media regimes and advertising build desires and make you believe you can realize those dreams,” says Surinder Singh Jodhka, professor of sociology and chair of the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).

“There is a huge conflict between aspirations and reality. The young want more and quickly. On the other side, the enrolment ratio in higher education has increased in the past 15 years, but substantive opportunities in the economy haven’t increased,” says Jodhka.

Both the 24-year-old and the 19-year-old mentioned above belonged to well-to-do families, both were educated and both lived in metros. Neither poor nor deprived, they did not fit in with the group profile that conventional wisdom holds is vulnerable to suicides.

“Most of the literature that has emerged from developing countries shows that people who commit suicide are from low socioeconomic class, older, single or divorced. Some of these things don’t translate to India or any other developed country. In India, the young are more vulnerable. People are attempting to understand the reasons for this. Mental illness and alcoholism are responsible for only a small percentage of suicide cases,” says Dr. Senthil Kumar Reddi, associate professor, psychiatry, at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bengaluru.

“This will have a huge implication on the economy of the country since it is the most active, vibrant, productive population of the country,” he says.

These suicides are linked to the massive social, economic and cultural changes sweeping the country. Nearly two-thirds of Indians are under 35 years of age; half are under 25. By 2020, the average age of an Indian will be 29, and there are hopes that this ‘bulge’ will lead to a ‘demographic dividend’ when the youth enter the workforce.

But as Congress leader and former Union human resource development minister Kapil Sibal was quoted as saying in The Washington Post in 2011, “It will be a dividend if we empower our young. It will be a disaster if we fail to put in place a policy and framework where they can be empowered.”

The India Skills Report 2014 by the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) states that although 60% of India’s population is available for work and contribute to the GDP, only 25% is capable of being used by the market. The report adds that if the research findings are to be believed, there would be a demand-supply gap of 82-86% in the core professions; the information technology industry alone would face a shortage of up to 3.5 million skilled workers.

“There has been a massive increase in enrolment in higher education, but the tragedy is that leave alone skills, young are not even educated in the true sense of the term. These young people have the degrees but are not prepared to join the workforce. Government and the private sector are not doing enough for skill development,” says S.K. Mehrotra, professor, Centre for Informal Sector and Labour Studies, JNU.

The economic boom following the opening up of markets in India over the past 25 years has not only created new opportunities but also contributed to rapid urbanization, stark income inequality and weakened social ties.

Some experts point to French sociologist Émile Durkheim’s famous 1897 book Le Suicide, which argued that urbanization, modernization and socioeconomic factors are responsible for increased social alienation and a higher suicide rate.

“Everyone is made to dream big these days. There is no space for (the) average. Society is so conscious about image that everyone is forced to be a super performer. There is a lot of anxiety, pressure for individual achievement. Those who give up, they think that things aren’t fine and will never be,” says New Delhi-based clinical psychologist Dr. Pulkit Sharma.

According to the recent National Crime Records Bureau figures, on an average, more than 100,000 people committed suicide every year in India from 2004 to 2014. And youth (18 to 30 years) and middle-aged people (30 to 45 years) were the prime groups taking recourse to the path of suicide. These age groups accounted for 34.1% and 32.2% of the suicides, respectively.

According to the data, causes of suicide include family problems, illness, marriage-related issues, love affairs, drug abuse/addiction, bankruptcy or indebtedness, failure in examination, unemployment, poverty and property disputes.

“Many young people who come to me ask questions like what is the meaning of life. Unfortunately, they aren’t getting answers to such questions these days. School curriculum doesn’t touch on deeper issues of life. This ideological vacuum leads to drugs, depression. To top it all is their active involvement on social networking sites, where the idea is to just boost your image. They keep increasing their friends’ list, but end up having no real friends,” says Dr. Sharma.

According to a study by the University of Missouri, US, the use of social networking site Facebook can lead to symptoms of depression if the site triggers feelings of envy among its users.

One of the important outcomes of the economic boom was migration—the idea driven by a dream for a better life in a bigger city, but there were some who couldn’t cope with the rat race and couldn’t go back either.

“The decline of villages puts pressure on people to move out. If you are moving out just for livelihood, you will be stressed physically and mentally, but when to this stress, there is an additional factor of aspirations and desires, the situation of anomy becomes acute. You can’t go back since you don’t like the village anymore; you can’t stay back because you think there is no place for you in the city anymore. Mobility brings anxiety... you want to become someone, but your resources are limited,” says Jodhka.

Between 2001 and 2011, the number of nuclear families increased in absolute terms, from 135 million in 2001 to 172 million in 2011, which as Dr. Kedar Banerjee, consulting psychiatrist at the National Institute of Behavioural Sciences, Kolkata, says, led to more loneliness.

“Earlier, we used to have a big family. Urbanization has made people lonely. There is no support system like we had earlier. Parents have no time for even their own child,” he says.

The census data revealed that the proportion of young resorting to suicide is even higher in rural areas, where nearly 19% of deaths in the age group was due to suicide as compared with 16.5% in 2004-06.

In urban areas, while motor vehicle accidents were the biggest killer in the age group at 15.3%, suicide was a close second, responsible for 14.7% of the deaths.

Clinics addressing mental health issues such as depression have opened up in cities in recent years. However, in rural India, there is a lack of specialist mental health experts and psychiatric clinics. The problem, according to a 2011 Lancet report, is exacerbated by the easy availability of pesticides and a lack of emergency care.

Dr. Banerjee holds consulting camps in the villages of Sundarbans—the only mental health camp in the area. “There is a lack of awareness. In villages, women commit suicide more than men. Poverty and lack of employment are mainly the reasons,” says Dr. Banerjee.

There are theories and lists on risk factors: family conflict, childhood abuse, drug and alcohol use, access to the means to die, loneliness, anger, purposelessness, sudden unemployment and terminal illness.

But, as Dr. Reddi points out, there are many people who have many of these risk factors, but still don’t take the extreme step.

“Suicide is a complex phenomenon, and no one single cause for suicides has been identified among the young. The way the information is disseminated or the way news reports present it, it is not very accurate. At the most, it is an approximate understanding made through systematic analysis,” he says.

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