Two years after her marriage, Radhika Harote, 26, jumped off her seventh-floor apartment in Mumbai after poisoning her months-old daughter Siddhi. An MBBS, she wanted to do her MS but her family persuaded her to put off her plans and have a baby. She saw the child as a hindrance to her career
Ayesha, 45, gave up her career as an ad executive to look after her family. When her two daughters grew up and started working, she began feeling lonely and depressed. One afternoon she hanged herself from the ceiling fan with her dupatta
Housewives have always been the largest single group committing suicide in India. But their profile and motive are changing, at least in the cities.
Many of them, like Radhika and Ayesha, are highly educated, belong to affluent families and have loving husbands. And many are under 30. For them, psychiatrists say, the dread D-word is not dowry but depression.
“It’s no longer just about hardship, domestic violence or dowry torture. Most married urban women kill themselves because of depression and loneliness or frustrated ambition,” said Dr Harish Shetty, psychiatrist with L.H. Hiranandani Hospital, Mumbai.
The frustration often comes from being caught, unlike men, between conflicting demands from opposite directions.
“In today’s competitive environment the youth, especially women, face tremendous pressure to prove themselves high achievers. Yet after marriage, working women are expected to become perfect homemakers, even at the cost of their careers,” Shetty said.
“More and more educated women are suffering from depression because they have this constant urge to find meaning in life through their careers while the people around them feel otherwise.”
Unlike Radhika, who felt cheated when she was denied the opportunity to advance in her chosen field, Meena Pathak tried to solve the problem by giving up her job. Even that didn’t work.
Meena’s first few years after marriage were happily spent looking after husband Hemant and their two sons. But as the kids grew older and chose to spend more time with their friends, and work kept Hemant away from home for longer periods, she began feeling useless.
“This is a problem women who give up their careers face once they are done raising children. They don’t know what to do with their lives. They come to feel that sacrificing their career wasn’t worth it,” said psychiatrist Ashok Pandey (name changed on request).
Meena opted for an extramarital affair. After a few months, when the excitement faded, the 38-year-old jumped to her death, leaving behind sons aged 12 and 15.
An urban homemaker’s lifestyle tends to push her over the edge, Pandey said. She becomes a “martyr”, going to sleep last and getting up before everyone else to make preparations for the children to go to school.
“Long work hours mean a shrinking of leisure time. She eats less and, you won’t believe this, many housewives from well-off families end up being anaemic,” Pandey said.
That’s how Swati Thathe, a 24-year-old teacher who had to look after her ailing in-laws, came to have a nervous breakdown in school. She recovered partially, but became irritable. A few days after being suspended for hitting a pupil, she leapt to her death from her apartment.
“She had threatened to commit suicide more than once, but no one took her seriously,” Shetty says.
Too many of the women committing suicide are too young.
Sales executive Dinesh Karnik still can’t understand why Sujatha, 24 and six months pregnant, hanged herself in their flat last year.
“She didn’t want the baby. She thought we weren’t yet affluent enough to be able to provide the child the sort of education and lifestyle she wanted to,” he said. “We were happy, but she wanted more.”
“Today, the middle and upper middle classes in the cities want everything fast — money, career, the good things in life. They set unrealistic goals that they may not always achieve,” Shetty said.
“But they lack the maturity to handle disappointment. That’s why urban women aged between 21 and 30 have become a high-risk group for suicide.”
Young, ambitious and insecure, these women need emotional support, but living in nuclear families at a time when neighbours hardly know each other, they don’t often get it.
The husbands’ absence for long periods, as they chase affluence, makes matters worse. “The husbands spend more time in Mumbai locals than with them,” Shetty said.
“We were married five years ago. We were very happy. I don’t know what went wrong. We have a three-year-old daughter,” said Prashant Singh. In her suicide note, his 25-year-old wife Sangeeta wrote in detail about her loneliness as her husband went out of town frequently on business.
The World Health Organisation says depression will become the biggest killer of women in the coming decade.
For every suicide, there are 20 who attempt it and 40 more who contemplate it. A World Mental Health report in 2001 found that unipolar depressive disorder (consistent, long-term sadness) was the commonest malady afflicting women between 15 and 44, disabling 18.6 per cent globally. The figure is higher than that for heart disease and breast or cervical cancer.
Mumbai doctors say many urban housewives, professionals and socialites depend heavily on anti-anxiety drugs like alprazolam just to get through their day. “These women take anti-anxiety pills like water,” Shetty said.
Sujata Dwivedi, 30, popped as many as 50 pills at a time.
“I started with one pill a day because I was depressed and couldn’t sleep. Then I kept increasing the dose. My days passed in a haze; I used to buy and hide the pills. I took them to steady my nerves before my husband returned home,” she said. “One day I took more than 200 tablets and woke up in hospital.”
Sujata has now been cured of alprazolam dependence.
The statistics are alarming. Out of the 112 women who kill themselves every day in India, 66 are housewives. The National Crime Records Bureau reported in February this year that more housewives take their own lives than any other group in Mumbai.
An annual survey in 2005 counted 361 suicides among homemakers in Mumbai, 348 in Chennai and 258 in Delhi.
“Women internalise their unhappiness and this leads to depression. When these homemakers have no one to communicate with, they suffer from acute emotional neglect,” said Johnson Thomas of Aasra, a centre for suicide prevention in Mumbai.
“We have opened a helpline (27546669) for depressed women and have outreach programmes. But for these to work, the women need to understand that there is no shame in discussing their emotional lives. Their upbringing makes it difficult for women to talk about their relationships even when they are not working out. They don’t know how and when to seek help.”
One cultural factor makes it worse for Indian women compared with those in the West. According to Women’s Health USA, 2004, three women attempt suicide for every one male, but the method they choose — slashing their wrists or swallowing pills — are treatable.
In India, where women hang or burn themselves to death or jump off high buildings, the chances of rescue or treatment are virtually nil.