Sunday, June 05, 2011

The Cultural Factor in Suicides

It is axiomatic that someone kills himself if he is deeply unhappy or depressed about life.

It is not that simple, however, to analyze the wider, economic and cultural causes of such unhappiness and depression.

I find it is a useful device to divide the suicides into two categories: of those who have material complaints, and those who have psychological ones (some of which are due to immediate provocations, an example being this). The rationale for this division will be apparent in a moment.

In the former category are the suicides of debt-ridden farmers, of a person in painfully bad health, of someone who has lost a lot of money or a close relative, etc. One rarely reads about these kinds of suicides as they are not really newsworthy.

In the latter category are the suicides one reads about in the papers: Pre-20 lovers jumping to their death, denial of a TV remote leading to suicide, bad score in the exams triggering an overdose of sleeping pills, etc. These are suicides coming out of situations which seem quite tolerable, and where one reading such news wonders, "But why?".

One wonders if the parents were too harsh, if there was a lot of pressure on the youngsters to conform and perform well, and so on.

I think one needs to ask another question in these situations. That question, being more diffusely directed, is not as interesting, but can lead to insight.

Consider the following propositions:
  • Stress can be socially induced. In the absence of comparison with other humans, the comparisons are media-driven.
  • The nuclear family in a metropolis is an isolated unit, its best friend being the television.
  • The lesser the number of human beings one relates to in a significant manner, the more amplified are the emotional reactions in the thereby reduced number of relationships.
  • The media ideal now-a-days (for the middle classes), be it about beauty, wealth, charisma, comfort, trendiness, and so on, is pretty much unachievable in most ways unless one becomes a part of a "mill of slaves" which in itself is highly distressing because it curtails autonomy.
  • One is unhappy to the extent that one's expectations are not being met. Who creates those expectations?
  • The lesser the expectation from oneself, usually the more expectations one has from "life".

It must be clear what I am trying to say: There are environmental and cultural factors which lead one to have an unrealistic expectation from life, and from other human beings. When these expectations are not met, or when one is apprehensive of oneself not meeting the devouring expectations of one's "loved" ones, suicide can loom as a possibility.

When a low-scoring kid from a nuclear family commits suicide, people generally think, "Oh, but the parents must have had high expectations from the poor child. They should have taken it easy and not put so much pressure on the child." This is somewhat valid, but ignores that parents are also part of an ecosystem. Given their alienation and isolation, their entire emotional energy is focused on the child. And given the increasing ruthlessness of a market-driven economy, their concern about the future well-being of their kid is not unfounded. And pressure from parents is just part of the picture. With a cool-winner-takes-all, losers-should-just-die, message being incessantly blared from the television and films and music videos, failure of any kind is more and more an intolerable blow to the ego.

It is the ego-wound which precipitates such suicides. For this, I hold the culture responsible. The prevailing culture of individualism and narcissism has made the ego very fragile. One is so much more invested in one's persona than in the past.

And that kind of investment can't bear any losses.

More and more "right" parenting is becoming a chimera about which hundreds of books are being written. Like dandruff, the more superficial remedies there are, the more one should suspect the problem to have deeper causes.

The parents can't really do much in this environment. They are competing (with the force of their expectations) with the economic forces and the forces of the media. If they let up, the child will either be gobbled up by the media, or lose out and become a BPO worker. There is also a crop of messengers(ref the educational films by Aamir Khan, and the various books by writers like Paulo Coelho) which give the rather beautifully feel-good fatalistic message that every child can grow into someone beautiful only if the parents and the teachers don't try to direct his growth and just provide a soil for the "seed" to find its own light.

That's very bad advice, for a number of reasons. For one, the expectation of growing into something beautiful is going to be even more insistent. The parents will say, "Ok, you don't want to study. But at least be a world-class painter." Secondly, not every child has a gift. Most are going to be regular people. Thirdly, if the parents and teachers stop directing, what else is going to fill up that void of a lack of influence and direction? You guessed it: the media. Good luck with that.

Suppose the child is unable to find "true love", or "fulfillment", or is unable to realize his "dream". Because these are fictions, the possibility is almost 100%. If he is able to withstand this disappointment, "great!", otherwise, ... , and don't just blame the parents.

Send the television to jail for ten years under section 306 (*) of the Indian Penal Code.

(* IPC 306: 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.)


pankaj said...

Parental pressure is not the natural outcome of a market driven economy, though media pressure of course is. America is a good example.

Sridhar said...

"In the former category are the suicides of debt-ridden farmers, of a person in painfully bad health, of someone who has lost a lot of money or a close relative, etc. One rarely reads about these kinds of suicides as they are not really newsworthy."

I had a "But why" reaction to one of these types of suicides actually. A good friend of mine, from my school days, committed suicide after the passing away of his Father. A combination of factors - he missed his Father's last moments (as he was abroad), was very close to him, and evidently was guilty for not moving back to India sooner to be at his ailing Father's side led him to make that decision (is how everyone else seemed to be rationalizing it). But I could not accept that explanation, he was otherwise a well-adjusted, optimistic, cheeerful guy, did he see no other option? Would his Father have not wanted his son to have a long and happy Life? Was his unbearable pain greater, than the need for him to be strong for his mother?

I ended up blaming Religion and Superstition ultimately, as he apparently left a note that he was going to "join" his father. He seems to have had a strong belief in the afterlife. He appears to have had no doubt whatsoever that he could be throwing away his Life, for nothingness.