Robin Williams – comedian, actor, father and husband who was loved by millions across the world – ended his own life a few weeks ago. Tributes, grief and messages poured in across social media, but also did shock and questions.
Why would an industry legend and a globally loved comedian take the drastic step? Why would someone with every resource in the world available to them feel so beyond help?
Robin Williams and others before him – musician Kurt Kobain, actor Jiah Khan and many school/ college kids across the country- their tragedies tell us something important. Suicidal feelings do not discriminate on the basis of age, gender, nationality or economic class. Suicidal feelings can impact anyone. Someone who looks like they have it ‘together’ on the outside could still be feeling completely isolated and helpless.
With reports of suicides, labels like ‘coward’ and ‘weak’ are often thrown around. This only deters people from seeking help and confiding in someone. Studies indicate a strong link between suicide and depression. The fact is no one can truly know what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes, especially when they are dealing with such extreme feelings of helplessness. Media reportage of suicide in India doesn’t help the cause either. When it’s the suicide of someone young, labels like ‘starlet’ and ‘troubled’ are attached to them, coupled with sensationalized speculation about their personal lives. This only adds to shame and stigma.
We often think of suicide as something that happens to someone else and some other family. The truth is, suicide is a growing crisis in India.
The WHO recent report on suicide rates in the world named India the ‘suicide capital’ of the world. More alarmingly, suicide is the second leading death of young people in India, impacting people in the 15-29 age group. Competition for grades and jobs is tougher than ever. Our cities, while getting more modern are also becoming more polluted and claustrophobic. Substance abuse issues are growing. As we embrace new developments, the struggle between cultural expectations and freedom is becoming more fraught. With long hours at work, changing cultural mores and other stressors, young relationships are under pressure too.
With a crisis that seems so overwhelming, how do we start to address these issues? The answer is empathy and support. Be it the school or the workplace, there is a need for a dedicated and qualified support system of counselors and therapists. People need to be made to feel secure enough to share their problems at school or work without feeling like they might lose their job or get labeled as ‘crazy’.
The first step is to acknowledge that modern lives are hard and that some days are tough. A culture where people feel secure enough to express feelings of vulnerability will encourage sharing. When such feelings are addressed, individuals can be helped before they feel like they need to resort to suicide.
We need an education system that promotes overall development of children by encouraging their interest in arts, sports and avenues to express their creativity. A system that revolves around perfection and grades only creates a pressure cooker environment that traps our children.
Also, legally speaking, suicide is a crime in India. Individuals who have tried to commit suicide can be prosecuted. This only adds to their existing trauma and punishes people at a time when they desperately need support. This can lead to families hiding someone’s suicide attempt to avoid police intervention, but this also prevents the individual from getting the help they need. We need to treat suicide attempts and thoughts as a cry for help, not as a crime.
We need to inculcate a system of support closer to home where children and young people feel comfortable in a non-judgmental environment to confide in friends and family. When someone tells us ‘I think I need help’, we need to respond with ‘You are not alone’, instead of shunning them away.
Only when we foster a culture of empathy and offer avenues of help, can we encourage people to ask for help. Life is not always rainbows and butterflies. Life can be tough at times, but if we hold each other through our journey, life gets better.
Life always gets better.
If you or someone you know is dealing with suicidal thoughts, help is available. Aasra has a free, confidential, 24×7 suicide helpline on 91-22-27546669. Find out more about them here http://www.aasra.info/.
1. First WHO report on suicide prevention http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2014/suicide-prevention-report/en/