Suicides are not an uncommon phenomenon but lately, we have seen their dramatic rise, especially among the youth, and within that cohort, particularly those studying at Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs).
As much as we might claim to understand suicides, it is an extremely complex phenomenon demanding our time and attention. As is the case with most social issues, everyone seems to have an opinion about it. People are quick to pass judgment on those who die by suicide and even suggest ways to control suicides.
Since it has become such a social menace, and in recognition of the fact that every suicide impacts not just the person concerned but also their family and society, it is imperative that we engage with it with some amount of seriousness.
Are suicides personal or social acts?
Most of us believe that suicide is a personal problem. This extends itself to the idea that if the cause of suicide lies within the individual, then the solution also must necessarily lie within the person! It is recognised that at most there are triggers which may coerce the person but their location also is restricted to the individual or individuals. For example, the rapist in case of rape or the husband or husband’s family in case of dowry or domestic violence.
Similarly, in case of failure in examination, the deficit of knowledge or self-defeating attitudes of the students themselves are considered to drive suicides. Characteristics like over-sensitivity, emotional fragility, and inability to handle stress are often attributed to those who attempt suicide. It is a classic case of a defence mechanism where the victim is blamed for the act so that others feel that it is a problem peculiar to the individual concerned and hence no one else can be possibly held responsible for it. Individual therapy sessions are thus aimed at equipping those vulnerable with coping mechanisms for dealing with stress and anxiety. Cognitive behaviour therapy aims at replacing self-defeatist attitudes and perceptions with positive ones. The focus is on the individual adjusting to a demanding situation.
However, despite the huge importance of understanding mental health issues, equating suicide with being solely a mental health concern may be a bit problematic. One must acknowledge that all individuals live in some or the other social context which impacts not only their attitudes and behaviour towards themselves and others but also their entire being. The Indian society provides not just diverse and multiple but unequal and hierarchical social contexts. These contexts are to a large extent dependent on people’s identities such as caste, class, gender, ethnicity, and religion etc. Therefore, suicide is also strongly influenced by structural determinants or systemic factors that lie beyond an individual's control.
For instance, the fact that you belong to a particular caste group which has a certain location and status in society and by virtue of that you have —or don’t have— access to certain privileges and also share similar experiences. If a person is discriminated against on account of belonging to a particular caste, religion, gender, ethnicity, etc, and experiences prejudice or discriminatory behaviour, then it may be difficult for them to ignore or wish it away. Turning a blind eye towards these problems may perhaps work for a few people but if these are structural irritants outside of individual control, then they have to be dealt with at systemic levels. These are also known as ‘manufactured vulnerabilities’ where those who are deemed as vulnerable groups are created or manufactured by levels of inequality and apathy, perpetuated by societal structures. Hence, institutional mechanisms or processes need to be devised to deal with them.
It was in 1897 that French sociologist Emile Durkheim studied suicide as a social fact as opposed to being an independent variable which was the dominant thinking of his time. The point that he was trying to make was that there are factors in the external environment of the individual which impacted their relationship with society and led to experiences of alienation, rudderlessness, disillusionment, or feeling of being stifled, forcing them to take their own lives. Therefore, to curtail death by suicide, one also needs to address all that is possibly oppressive in the social environment.
Durkheim classified four types of suicides — egoistic, altruistic, anomic, and fatalistic.
- Egoistic suicide reflected a prolonged sense of not belonging, of not being integrated with a community, the absence of which could give rise to meaninglessness, apathy, and melancholy.
- Altruistic suicide was characterised by a sense of being overwhelmed by a group’s goals and beliefs. It occurred in societies with high integration where individual needs were seen as being less important than a society’s needs as a whole. For example, giving up one’s life for one's country.
- Anomic suicide reflected an individual's moral confusion and lack of social direction, which was related to dramatic social and economic upheaval.
- Fatalistic suicide occurred when a person was excessively regulated when their futures were pitilessly blocked and their passions are violently choked by excessive discipline.
It is not difficult to imagine the presence of these factors in our lives as well, irrespective of the times we live in.
What about student suicides?
There has been a spate of suicides in various IITs over the past couple of years. Interestingly, an interim report by IIT Bombay ruled out caste-based discrimination as the cause of the recent death by suicide of a student there. However, mental health surveys conducted in the same institute revealed caste discrimination as the central reason for mental health problems faced by scheduled caste students on campus.
Students who join the institution on reserved seats are labelled and perceived as being less deserving than other students. One would imagine that institutes like IIT would impose immense academic pressure on all the students, but this must be many times more for the reserved category students. This is because, in an atmosphere of intense resentment, prejudice, and hostility, the internal exams unlike the external competitive exams are perceived as providing a chance to prove oneself deserving and worthy of the seat that one occupies there.
It is important to understand the way we approach and understand suicides for that will determine the solution we deem as being fit. Even though these approaches are not in binaries, for the sake of clarity, they are being positioned as being at two ends of the spectrum. By making the individual responsible, one tries to equip them with strategies but these strategies — no matter how empowering— shift the blame from the deep-rooted systemic forces to the personal.
Since one of the most commonly recognised stressors is performance or failure in an examination, one need not always focus on training or coaching the student in coping with stress but reforming the examination by making it more reflective rather than rote-based can also be considered. If schools, colleges, and universities celebrate individual performance or achievement then no amount of verbal emphasis on cooperation or collaboration will make them relate to each as allies and not as rivals. This struggle gets aggravated when there are limited seats in colleges or employment opportunities in the market.
Added to this genuine scarcity of opportunities is the ‘reservation’ of a few seats for the socio-economically disadvantaged which leads other students to wrongly believe that the deserving students are left high and dry without any seat or they have had to struggle much harder as compared to others. The fact that they belong to privileged classes and by virtue of the economic, cultural, and social capital that they possess, they may not be as deserving as they would like to imagine themselves to be. The notion of ‘merit’ seems hollow and, under these circumstances, all their wrath turns against students from a particular social background.
Similarly, if one wants to support the teacher professionally and ensure removing stress, one must give importance to maintaining an adequate pupil-teacher ratio, trusting them and giving them autonomy in curricular-, pedagogic-, and assessment-related matters. It is quite possible that in the absence of all this, they may vent their anger on students — those that are vulnerable and less powerful than them.
Likewise, we will have to view suicide as not being a personal problem alone, but an issue that demands a change in our outlook, acknowledging structural constraints confronting young people and ameliorating them. Till the time we do that, we will keep losing precious lives to this menace.
(Disha Nawani is a professor at the School of Education at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Views expressed are personal opinions of the author.)