(World Suicide Prevention Day is observed every year on 10 September. FIT is republishing this story in that context.)
Four years ago, Ankita Shah* lost her father to suicide. For a long time after his death, she was in shock and felt lonely despite the support of her immediate family. It was only after she began seeing a mental health professional that her emotional state improved.
In India, more than 2.3 lakh people die due to suicide each year which means more than two lakh families have stories like Ankita’s. Their stories follow similar patterns: loneliness, shame, social stigma and isolation, guilt and several unanswered questions.
The stigma runs deep, and insensitive remarks are common after such a death.
Milind and Manisha Mhaiskar highlighted this in 2017, through an open letter they wrote to their deceased son in a newspaper.
Some said you were very strict with him, some said you gave too much liberty, could he not carry on with the burden of expectations?... Some said both [parents] are so busy, they may not be giving him time... you, me and mammu [mother], that was our world, how do we tell that to people?
Such comments can explain why not everyone is as candid as the Mhaiskar family. Ankita, for instance, didn’t want to speak about her father initially, and friends and family also kept a distance. This is why, she believes, it is time to talk about suicide. “If we are more open, we help people cope with their loss, and we help erase the shame,” says Ankita.
Many people who lose loved ones to suicide experience “complicated grief”. In normal grief, a person slowly begins to accept and adapt to the reality of their loss. Their sadness dissipates with time.
But with complicated grief, the bereaved person is unable to recover from normal grief symptoms even over a prolonged period.
For Sarika Mehta*, losing her aunt to suicide at a young age had a long-lasting impact. She says,
"After my aunt died while at my home, my grades slipped, and I cried at night. Decades later, I became an over-protective parent. I constantly needed to know where my son was, because I was terrified that something had gone wrong."
Suicide can also cause a rift within the family. “Family members go through depression without talking about it. This can lead to substance abuse and the fabric of family life is torn apart,” says Dr Pervin Dadachanji, a psychiatrist who works with the suicide bereaved.
In many families, the deceased person is seldom mentioned again. Kavita Singh*, who lost her mother as a teenager, shares such an experience. She says,
"I couldn’t talk about my mother since my family struggled to accept the situation. I didn’t understand how to cope with the pain, the guilt and the questions. I even showed suicidal behaviour at one point."
Studies suggest suicide of a close contact is associated with several negative health and social outcomes, including an increased risk of depression and suicide, depending on the relationship. “Such people have a deeper sense of depressive emotions than a naturally bereaved person,” Dr Dadachanji explains.
Lend a Helping Hand
When you extend your support to a bereaved person, you alleviate their stress. “Even a message that you are available to talk can help them feel less apprehensive,” Dr Dadachanji says.
"You can also help out in other ways, like by offering to babysit their kids. You should allow them to show their emotions. But saying ‘Don’t cry’ or ‘Cheer up’ can be more harmful than beneficial, because it is normal for a grieving person to have both good and inconsolable moments."
“My friends helped by reminding me of the positive memories of my father, which I had blocked because of the nature of his death,” says Ankita.
Kavita believes listening and patience is key. “It’s important to listen without judgement. Understand that there is guilt and saying that we aren’t responsible does not help. And give us time to heal – it may take years,” she states.
Developing Institutional Support
In June 2018, the Indian government notified the Mental Healthcare Act 2017 which essentially decriminalises suicide. But to remove the stigma, it is essential to speak about the subject.
Fortunately, some organisations are adopting favourable measures to address suicide bereavement. A case in point is a Mumbai school that asked Dr Dadachanji to speak to students who had lost a classmate.
"The girl’s friends were as affected as her family. They wanted to know why their friend took such a step. Having a professional explain that they may not find all the answers helped them accept the situation." - Dr Dadachanji
Another example is Sarika’s workplace. “When an employee ended their life, the company gave close colleagues time to grieve, and offered counselling services to them at company’s cost,” she says.
According to Ankita, sensational stories about suicide in the media can be harmful. “The media should instead initiate a healthy conversation about the subject,” she says.
Set Up Safe Spaces
There is a critical need to have safe spaces for people to share their grief.
These safe spaces need to be created by companies, colleges, hospitals and other organisations to talk about mental health, according to Kavita.
“All institutions should host a briefing by a mental health professional after such an event,” says Dr Dadachanji.
A sympathetic ear can also go a long way. “It would have been good to have compassionate teachers after my aunt’s death,” Sarika says. “Companies could train managers to discuss such things with sensitivity.”
One such safe space is a support group. “In such a group you talk to others who are going through the same process. This helps to start the healing,” explains Ankita, who founded We Hear You, a Mumbai-based suicide bereavement support group with Kavita and Dr Dadachanji.
"In a support group, we learn from each other, we know we are not alone, and nobody is asking us to get over it. However, a support group is not therapy." - Kavita
Sarika agrees. “Within a few months of joining a support group, I bonded with the others in the group, because we all understood each other well,” she says.
It is time to be open about suicide bereavement, says Kavita, for which we need to understand mental health issues better. “Also, we need a culture of support rather than judgement,” she says. “We can all do our little bit.”
*Names changed to protect privacy.
Read more about suicide bereavement and support groups here: We Hear You (based in Mumbai). You can also visit this list of safe helplines, psychiatrists and psychologists curated by The Health Collective.
(Rohini Kapur is a writer and blogger based in Mumbai. She writes about books, food, fashion, travel and mental health.)
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