Unhappy rank: Deaths by suicide at its highest in India
The virus was not the only mass killer during the pandemic. Deaths by suicide reported by the National Crime Records Bureau for 2021 showed an increase of 7.2 per cent over those in 2020 — from 1.53 lakh deaths to 1.64 lakh. In 2019, such deaths numbered 1.39 lakh. A 2021 Lancet study pointed out that India had the highest number of suicide deaths in the world. One reason for concern here is that the NCRB uses data from police reports, which leaves open the possibility that the facts are incomplete, because the associated social stigma often drives families to conceal the nature of death. Social stigma and confusion about the legal status of self-harm seem to have added to the authorities’ strange indifference to the countrywide tragedy that has been growing steadily. Creating categories such as ‘farmer suicides’ and ‘student suicides’ is not enough. In 2020 and 2021, however, the number of suicides that has grown faster than the average rate of increase is that of daily wage earners: one in four suicides comes from this group. While the pandemic hurt them severely, the increase must also be placed in the context of the ceaseless rise in suicide deaths among them since 2014.
Unemployment in 2020, and bankruptcy and debt in 2021 pushed more working-age people, especially men, over the edge. This is, again, pandemic driven, but these causes converge with older ones of family problems and illness. A large proportion of the illness behind suicide has to do with mental health, which adds to the stigma. Women’s suicides for illness increased in both 2020 and 2021, while it was, with family problems, the greatest cause of self-harm for senior citizens. Close confines, acute insecurity and even hunger must have contributed to the sense of hopelessness. Perhaps the general misery was reflected in the growth of drug abuse as one of the greatest causes of self-harm for people of working age, men mainly; together with illness, drugs as cause of suicide showed rapid growth. The NCRB data are, as always, more than adequate to unearth the roots of the tragedy — these are various, although often allied. Perhaps the numbers are now staggering enough for the busiest government to pay attention to clear-cut policies of suicide prevention.