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The myths and facts of suicide and survival

With actor Sushant Singh Rajput's death triggering fresh conversations about suicide, Lounge speaks to two mental health professionals about the red flags and coping mechanisms

Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput.
Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput.

The days following the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput by suicide were unusually busy for Sonali Gupta. The Mumbai-based psychologist and author of the book Anxiety: Overcome It and Live Without Fear received several e-mails from people reaching out to seek therapy. There were also some emergency calls. Gupta, who consults a limited number of clients between the ages of 15 and 70, noticed that the mood and sleep patterns of her clients were adversely impacted. “A number of them reported getting triggered by the death of the actor," she says.

The discourse around mental health—sharing personal stories, helpline numbers and information on support groups—has gained traction on social media in the days since Rajput’s demise. Celebrity deaths by suicide can affect mental health of millions. Speaking to Mint on the phone, Pune-based psychiatrist Dr Soumitra Pathare says, “Suicide touches all of us. Research reveals for every one suicide, 15 people get affected."

In a Tedx Talk from last year, titled Busting myths around suicide, Pathare, who is the director of Centre for Mental Health Law and Policy (CMHLP), presented some grim facts. “One in 3 suicides in the world happens in our country. It is the number one cause of death among young people. Today suicide is the number one cause of death among young women, ahead of maternal mortality. That’s why you need to break the silence around suicide," he says in the talk, adding that suicide is preventable.

One of the myths Pathare debunks in the talk is the belief that suicides happen without warning. Research suggests that most people who are vulnerable would have consciously or unconsciously shared verbal and non-verbal cues in times of extreme distress. Those who have undergone abuse and have a history of self-harm are regarded as high risk. On the phone, Dr Pathare adds, “One-third of suicide victims, who are women, resorted to it due to domestic violence. There needs to be policies in place to check domestic abuse." He adds that since alcoholic men are a vulnerable group, too, a law to limit easy availability of alcohol may help.

While Pathare presents the broad picture, Gupta lists a few commonalities related to individuals. “Be watchful if someone is talking (about) taking their life or referring to it in a metaphorical manner, such as by saying, ‘I will live until so and so age’. A possible non-verbal indicator could be a significant change in a person’s behaviour over a period of time. It is reflected in acts of social withdrawal, distancing themselves and lack of interest in activities they loved and enjoyed," she says. She is quick to add that one should not jump to any conclusions based on these factors in isolation because there are multiple variables at play and every individual is different.

Gupta stresses that it can be reductive to connect suicide to depression alone. She says that even if someone is not diagnosed as having a severe mental illness but is experiencing deep distress due to psychosocial pressures, such as job loss, financial crisis, exam failure and relationship breakdown, they are in a vulnerable state. “A useful lens is to understand the triggers that increase distress. Sometimes people don’t know their own degree of distress, but that is a marker for me," she says.

Caregivers, family and close friends are immediately affected if a loved one succumbs to suicide. Gupta’s advice for them is to seek help from a qualified mental healthcare expert to process their grief and trauma. They may not be prepared to talk about their grief for a long time. “Offer your presence and remember it takes time," she advices their friends and carers.

An extensive list of qualified mental healthcare professionals across India is available courtesy iCALL, Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

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