SEATTLE, Washington — India is currently experiencing a severe suicide crisis that has been continuing for years but is being made even worse by the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2016, there were 230,314 recorded suicides in India. Since the yearly average of suicides worldwide is 800,000, in the year 2016, 29% of the world’s suicides happened in India, a country that houses 17% of the world’s population. India’s suicide crisis is exacerbated by the severe stigma in the country against suicide, which means that there are probably significantly more suicide cases that go unreported or that are classified as natural deaths.
A Deadly Stigma
Suicide rates are especially high among India’s farming community. Burdened by crushing debt and increasingly unworkable land, more than 10,000 Indian farmers reportedly took their own lives in 2019.
While poverty is the root cause of these deaths, the stigma surrounding suicide is a major contributing factor. For one, attempted suicide was once illegal in India and punishable by up to a year in jail. The Mental Healthcare Act of 2017 decriminalized suicide attempts, which was an important step representing significant progress.
Even though it has been decriminalized, there still is a wider cultural stigma against mental illness generally and against suicide especially, that persists in the country. This stigma is extremely harmful because it has been a primary cause in preventing the discussion of India’s suicide crisis. The taboo nature of suicide in Indian culture often means that potential victims cannot receive effective healthcare or discuss their feelings with family and friends, both of which make them more vulnerable.
Addressing Stigma Means Saving Lives
In the WHO 2014 report on suicide prevention, one of the steps recommended to prevent suicide is to “…improve societal attitudes and beliefs and eliminate stigma towards people with mental disorders or who exhibit suicidal behaviors…”
Working to reduce the stigma around suicide and its victims would be an easily achievable way to address India’s suicide crisis and save many lives.
The socioeconomic factors that are putting immense pressure on many poor Indians and driving some of them to suicide are multifaceted and difficult to change. But experts argue that there is a much more realistic and immediate way to lower India’s suicide rate: talking about it. Research has shown that openly discussing suicide with potential victims can help prevent it. Open discussion about suicide would also be one of the best ways to end the cultural stigma that prevents people from seeking help.
Working to End the Crisis
One group that is working diligently to address India’s suicide crisis is the Center for Mental Health Law and Policy, which currently has two major projects underway to address mental illness issues in India.
The first, called ATMIYATA, was implemented in central India from 2013 to 2015. This project involved sending volunteers, called Champions, out into 41 villages to offer counseling to individuals struggling with mental health disorders and to connect them with public mental health services and social benefits.
The ATMIYATA project website states that the 59 Champions identified and provided counseling to 1,150 people struggling with mental illness. The project also helped 1,376 people with access to social benefits and showed mental health awareness films to 7,622 people.
Following the success of the first ATMIYATA project, the Center has implemented the same strategies on a much larger scale. This second version is currently underway, with 580 Champions working to cover almost 600 villages with a combined population of one million people.
The second project, Suicide Prevention & Implementation Research Initiative (SPIRIT), began in August 2017 and will end in June 2022. SPIRIT is implementing a suicide prevention strategy in 120 villages in northern India, which consists of three smaller projects. Firstly, training school teachers to teach mental health awareness, secondly, encouraging communities to store their pesticides (a common suicide tool in India) in shared storage units, and lastly, training local health workers in identifying and helping those displaying risk factors for suicide.
Projects like these show that India’s suicide crisis is not insurmountable. Experts argue that the next step is a national, government-implemented suicide prevention strategy. This strategy should include a 24-hour helpline as well as education on how to talk about suicide and nation-wide awareness campaigns, all of which would help to end the harmful stigma against suicide victims and make it easier for them to seek care and help.
The tools exist to address India’s suicide crisis, and if a national strategy is organized thousands of lives could be saved. With the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbating this crisis, a national strategy against suicide in India is needed more urgently than ever.
– Dylan Weir