Suicide: Social, medical and cult contexts

Shihab Sarkar | Published: April 21, 2016 17:56:36 | Updated: October 24, 2017 12:33:15


The newspaper report about a young man taking his own life in the capital the other day cannot but depress one. Incidents of suicides by male youths are not much frequent these days. The young man in this case was pursuing his tertiary education at a university. A future full of prospects awaited him. But to his ill luck, he had to drop out from his Honours course thanks to financial constraints.
As part of a double whammy, the young man had to shoulder the burden of his parental family. Unemployment later forced him to leave his hometown in a northern district to end up in the capital. But a decent job eluded him in Dhaka too. After a number of futile attempts to land a job, one day he locked himself in a room at the city residence of a relative. He was later found hanging by the rope. In his suicide note the young man confessed to his desperation that had led him to take his own life.
It is the young women and teenage girls committing suicide that normally makes up the South Asian picture of these unnatural deaths. Bangladesh is no exception. In the past, extreme poverty played a dominant role in prompting both men and women to commit suicide. Thanks to different social complications and troubling attitudinal changes at community level, suicides at one time began being associated with hitherto unknown factors. Unlettered women emerged the silent victims. Sexual persecutions and rural arbitrations accounted for many women's choosing the path of self-destruction.
The metropolitan areas, including Dhaka, have long been witnessing a different spectacle. Unlike that in the villages, life in the cities is moulded by myriad urban complexities. Harsh realities add to these, making the vulnerable unable to carry the load of life any more. From failures and shocks to disappointments, lots of factors are found to be at play as reasons for suicide deaths. Like the societies in the developed world, ours also have lately started undergoing a kind of metaphysical transformation. Some might feel tempted to call it the existentialist syndrome. Those affected by it find no meaning in living. Life loses all its appeals for them like the protagonists in the works by the existentialist writers. In real life, many fail to carry the burden of the great void and thus let them be lost in the abyss of death.
To our relief, Dhaka has yet to experience this morbid trend in its full vengeance. Philosophised suicides are still stray incidents in our cities, with most of them caused by mundane reasons. But then the very act of self-destruction is defeatist, especially to those who propound positivism.
In spite of all this, people take their own lives irrespective of material or intellectual achievements. At this point psychiatrists weigh in to explore the exact circumstances leading to these deaths.
In the context of mental health, suicides are generally linked to nervous breakdown. For many victims, it's like reaching the point of no return. It's chiefly prompted by unexpected or repeated failures in different sectors of one's life; and also deep-seated depression, prolonged state of being neglected, etc. These illnesses might take the forms of medical complications like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other diseases. Moreover, great disillusionments and bouts of heartbreak also play a critical role in suicides. In many cases, suicides are traced to genetic roots. Repentance after committing a crime at times results in decisions to kill oneself. In many countries suicides are considered criminal acts.  In a few others, it's recognised as a ritual. In medieval Japan, defeated warriors used to commit hara-kiri, an act of stabbing oneself to death, rather than be captured. This was part of the Samurai warrior culture. In the later centuries, officials would commit hara-kiri to show their disapproval of a superior's decision. Besides, hara-kiri or seppuku used to be considered an act of sacrificing one's own life for a great cause. After their defeat in the Second World War, many Japanese committed hara-kiri out of grief. Deaths by the suicidal kamikaze attacks on enemy ships during WW-II will go down in history as instances of the nation's great patriotism. In 1970, the legendary Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima performed his sensational hara-kiri after his failed coup attempt. As part of his mission, the novelist, also a nationalist, had founded his own right-wing militia.
Like honour killing, honour suicides are also common in many cultures around the world. These acts have their ardent defenders and advocates. On the other hand, a few of these self-killings have been sparking outcry since their occurrences. The forced suicide of Socrates in 399 BC on the allegation of corrupting the youths of Athens remains a riddle and great deviant act of this great civilisation. Stoic philosopher Seneca also killed himself on the orders of his pupil, the Roman Emperor Nero, in AD 65. Ironically, Nero himself was also forced to commit suicide later.
In the context of suicidal deaths, the most heated topic these days perhaps is euthanasia. Followed mostly in the developed countries, these wilful or induced deaths relate to terminally ill people. The main objective of these deaths is providing relief from pains of illness to patients. Voluntary euthanasia deaths are said to be in practice in a number of countries. Involuntary ones are considered completely against bioethics, and are often viewed as 'murders'.
In a number of states in the USA and a few countries, physician-assisted suicides (PAS) have lately sparked lots of public outcry. Surprisingly, scores of civil society groups have stood by the people in favour of PAS. Like those caused by euthanasia, these deaths or self-killings have been witnessing 'volunteers' in larger numbers these days. No surprise that the slogan 'right to die' has become a buzz phrase among a section of rights activists in the West.     
Thanks to its association with great persons and historical events, suicide has also often been romanticised. While many dismiss the act as utterly cowardly and defeatist, some others discover in it the elements of a kind of chivalry. And it's also true the early 'forced suicides' appear to many the blatant acts of murder. Notwithstanding the mystique and glamour attached to it, suicide leaves behind a trail of sorrow and dreariness. The act goes against everything that stands for the positive in life. Those who finally give in to this fatal choice are considered veritably doomed.
Scores of modern celebrities have committed suicide. They include writers, artists, philosophers and performers. Persecution and ostracising have led dozens of creative people to take their own lives in the former socialist countries. In the 20th century pro-suicide schools of thought drew a section of romantic youths; so did the clandestine cults spreading the magic of this socially disapproved act. Mass suicides led by self-styled spiritual leaders became alarmingly frequent in the later half of the last century in some Western countries.

Most notable among them was the 1978 ritualistic mass suicide that occurred in Georgetown, the capital of Guyana in South America. Over 900 males and females took part in the frenzied ceremony by taking cyanide. The orgy of death had been termed 'revolutionary suicide'. The mass suicide was led by Jim Jones, who had founded the so-called People's Temple, a quasi-religious organisation.

To the relief of the common people, the poorer and tradition-bound nations can mostly keep themselves free of the hypnotic pull of suicides. In the West, they have strong preventive measures like professional counselling, advocacy groups, etc.

Suicide prevention forums in many countries play a great role in dissuading people from taking extreme decisions. The day-to-day struggle for eking out a decent living leaves little space for the poor to fantasise death. Ironically, defeats in the brutal fight for a fulfilled life eventually push some into the abyss of untimely deaths.

Apart from the emotional losses, suicides take an economic toll at family, community and national levels.


author's e-mail address: shihabskr@ymail.com
 

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