The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Suicides on rise among seniors

Kozhikode, Nov. 4: Kerala has the highest life expectancy in the country, but recent studies by psychiatrists have revealed an alarming trend — a significant number of elder citizens do not enjoy their life and are increasingly committing suicide.

Nearly 50 per cent of those who have committed suicide in the state in the last four years are between 45 and 65 years old. In 1998, 46.98 per cent of people in this age group took their lives. The figure for 1999 was 42.69 per cent. For 2000, it was 48.2 per cent, while in 2001, it stood at 49.3 per cent. Projections for 2002 show that this figure could cross 50 per cent this year.

What is most alarming, according to Dr P.N. Suresh Kumar of the psychiatry department at Kozhikode’s medical college, is that a considerable section of these people are more than 60 years old. People of this age group accounted for 18.3 per cent and 20 per cent of the total suicides in the state in 2000 and 2001, respectively. This is significant, with the last census showing that 10 per cent of Kerala’s population is above the age of 60. Projections indicate that the figure would increase to more than 20 per cent by 2020.

Depression is a major reason for this trend, according to the studies. Dr Suresh Kumar points out that the parameters of social life have changed dramatically in the last decade and because of this the elderly, who belong to a different value system, are getting progressively alienated.

Studies conducted at the Thiruvananthapuram medical college has also identified growing incompatibility between income and needs, break-up of joint families, unchecked alcoholism and drug abuse as causes.

The problems of a “transitional society” have been identified by these studies as the reason for the suicides of those other than the elderly also.

“Consumerist” Kerala has the highest suicide rate in India at 31.5 persons per lakh a year, against the national average of around 10 per lakh. This has risen from 27.1 per lakh a year against a national average of 9.2 in the 1990s, according to the State Mental Health Authority.

Cases of family suicide are also on the rise, with 59 cases reported in 2000 alone.

The studies show that the remarkable progress Kerala has made in the health education and service sectors is not reflected in the economic front. Dwindling industrial investment and a shrinking agricultural base over the last three decades has had a telling impact on the income profile of the state, where educated unemployment is rampant. Besides, the minimum needs of even a working class family in the educated society of Kerala is much more than in other states.

“Disparity between income and needs is the main factor that drives people to kill themselves in most cases,” said Dr Suraraj Mony, secretary of the mental health authority.

“Bankruptcy” was found to be the cause of 991 suicides reported in 1999. As many as 239 cases were attributed to unemployment, 398 to insanity and 1,365 to diseases, it added. “Exam failure” claimed 24 the same year, highlighting the sense of insecurity gripping middle-class children in a highly competitive milieu.

The spread of media in the wake of satellite and IT revolution has also contributed to it, said Dr Mony.

“Death and violence become an entertainment on the small screen,” he observed.

“People are yet to acquire social and mental skills to cope with realities. Keralites are fortunate to live in an environment marked by absence of climatic extremes, devastating natural calamities or major wars. Suddenly, they are caught in the vortex of fast-pace social change,” Dr Mony said.

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