On June 14, 2020 the Indian media reported the breaking news that a promising young Bollywood actor named Sushant Singh Rajput allegedly committed suicide. On the very same day a section of the Bangladeshi media reported that a 19 year old woman in Barura killed herself after being blackmailed by a man who had threatened to spread her intimate photographs on Facebook.
As Sushant’s death sparked the conversation about mental health awareness in India, I felt compelled to explore the various aspects of suicide here in Bangladesh. I have an academic background in Psychosocial Studies, and have trained in Counselling Skills, and I definitely support the statements that we need to remove the stigma associated with mental health issues, and effectively recognize and treat mental health problems.
However, I also feel that we cannot just import definitions and treatments from other cultures and superimpose them on the population here. As much as we have progressed from packaging people who suffer from psychological and emotional concerns as ‘pagols’, to being more understanding that they suffer from depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, psychosis, and other identifications, we ought to do more. We need to address the complexities of our own society, or societies rather, comprising of the urban, provincial, rural, and outliers, and try and comprehend what the situations are that create or activate these problems.
In Bangladesh, suicide is not only stigmatized, but criminalized as well. Section Section 306 of the Penal Code 1860 states - "If any person commits suicide, whoever abets the commission of such suicide, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine." Further, in Section 309 an attempted suicide is also a crime with legal consequences involving imprisonment and fines.
Therefore, I wonder if killing oneself is actually conceptualized within the spectrum of mental health, because if so, how can it be a crime? And how can someone, who experiences extreme isolation and loneliness to the extent of wanting to depart from this world, be a criminal? If unsuccessful, the person would need treatment and inclusion, not punishment and further exclusion.
It is most likely on account of these laws and the fact that the religious and social disgrace associated with it leads to under reporting, and the fact that medical scrutiny especially in the rural areas has no specific guidelines, that suicides are not recorded as such, and as a result there are no accurate statistics.
Usually cases are evaluated as Causes Unknown or Death by Accident. One report states there are over 6000 suicides a year, while another posits that there are nearly 20,000 a year. Incidentally, the WHO informs us that there are roughly 800,000 suicides worldwide annually. Therefore, theoretically speaking, if there are 10,000 suicides a year here, that would mean over 1% of the total number of cases in the world.
A very pressing and significant social problem I would say. And let us also consider the family and friends of the suicide victims who carry the grief of the bereavement and the burden of the death by association. They have to continuously live with guilt, shame, repression of the truth and fear of legal reprisals. A combination of factors that is certain to lead to experiencing deeper trauma and damaging negative emotions. Thus the vicious cycle of mental health struggles.
In the absence of a suicide surveillance and with insufficient data collection, the available evidence (pre pandemic) indicates that suicide rates are much higher in the rural areas than in the urban, and that unlike most countries, twice as many females are more prone to taking their own lives here, then males.
Research illustrates the reasons being “low status of women”, whereby they are regular victims of violence and abuse, and suffer from emotional turmoil in their relationships and due to poverty. Suicides are categorized as anomic, where there is a sudden change in the environment, or egoistic, where the female feels disconnected from her familial and social bonds. The most common methods are hanging oneself or taking poison.
The available literature translates into suicide traversing with gender. And I wonder if for a woman in this country, the act of taking one’s life is a final demonstration of agency or the opposite, a manifestation of the realization of not ever being able to make one’s own life choices. Whatever the intentions, a significant percentage of the women were and are feeling disempowered, even with our strides in gender equality.
Suicide is premature death and is not only a loss of life but also a loss of potential. Now with the effects of the pandemic and social bonds and livelihoods disappearing, I shudder to think how many out there are thinking of ending their lives because of the grave uncertainty of how their lives will end. How will suicide intersect with the new normal? Let us search for answers here, in the environment around us. Let us take our cue from Bollywood.
Chintamoni grew up in Dhaka, where she will always belong, but never quite fit in. She is an enthusiastic traveler, a compulsive procrastinator, and a contumelious raconteur.