Newspaper headlines in recent weeks are screaming about India’s soaring suicide rate. One expert in particular noted that Indian women kill themselves at a rate three times higher than in wealthy western countries, particularly married women.
Why? From my experience, working with India’s teens and people in their twenties, and from what data is available, women commit suicide for three major reasons:
- Chemical depression
- Sexual abuse that leads to depression
- Physical abuse that leads to depression.
Interestingly, the main solution to all of these is rather simple: communication. People who can talk openly about their depression, whatever the cause of it, and get help, are far more likely to get over their depression, avoid suicide and lead productive lives.
Simple in theory, but not in practice.
The taboos in all three areas are so strong that virtually nobody facing any of these issues in India is in a position to openly, candidly talk about them.
Take straight chemical depression. In many cases, this can be treated with drugs, but how many families are willing to openly talk about getting a depressed family member psychological help? They’d frequently rather hide the depression, ignore it, deny it.
And what about sexual abuse. In most cases, this is inflicted by a “trusted” family member or friend, and the child, unless taught in advance about how to deal with sexual abuse, is powerless to act.
In the rare case where the child does report the abuse, she is frequently punished for saying such “terrible things” about her abuser. The abuser thus continues to abuse other children, and the victim goes through life battling feelings of self-loathing and suicide.
Then there is physical abuse. In an arranged marriage, the pressure on the woman to stay in the marriage (particularly when large, illegal dowries have been paid) from her own parents is more than she can resist. Frequently, if she does work up the courage and reports the abuse to her parents, she is chastised, and told to “be a better wife” so the husband won’t hit her as much.
In a love marriage, particularly where the marriage went against the parents’ wishes, the sense of humiliation is too great; no matter how badly the woman is abused, she frequently cannot bring herself to admit her “failure” in choosing a spouse by herself.
In India, kids are taught how to navigate crossing treacherous roads. They are taught to play chess, and cricket, to read, and write. But they aren’t taught to talk about depression, or sexual and physical abuse. Which means parents are putting more value on swinging a bat, or moving a rook, than on arming their kids with the one tool they may need most to survive: open communication.
In 2010, there were nearly 200,000 official suicides reported in India. In fact, the number may be much higher, because the taboos against suicide are so strong that families often hide the fact that the fatal damage was self-inflicted. The surest path to counting those you love among these numbers is to keep silent, to not discuss issues of depression and abuse.
So let’s talk.