Towards the end of Suicide Prevention Month, yet another student of IIT Madras was found hanging in his room.
Nagendra Kumar Reddy was on scholarship; he had topped his class the previous year. By all accounts, he had a promising, lucrative career ahead of him. But it has been speculated that the reason he took the extreme step was that he had not cleared the Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering (GATE) on his second attempt.
Every time someone commits suicide, we wonder why. The person seemed so happy. The person had such a loving family, and so many friends. Even by the complicated parameters of success set by Facebook – a lucrative job, a beautiful and accomplished partner, a cuddly dog, a child or two, and frequent holidays on the beach – most people seem to be making it. And, yet, an extraordinary number of people are depressed.
What is it about the times in which we live that makes life so terrible, that makes us want to give up so often?
The whole world was stunned when Robin Williams, who became a spokesperson for depression even while he made us laugh, ended his life. He seemed to have it all – a stellar acting career, a supportive family, and professional help with his depression. And yet, he found himself in such a dark place that he could not find a way out. We will never know what pressures he faced, what made him want out of it all.
How many of us are equipped to deal with our own bouts of depression, or those of our friends? Most often, we only end up making depressed people feel guilty about their situations – to laypeople, depression appears to be a state of mind, not a chronic condition. To tell someone that he must count himself lucky for all that he has may further exacerbate the problem, because it invalidates his depression.
One of the most critical steps we need to take in tackling depression, and therefore suicide, is to remove the stigma around psychiatric counselling.
Every so often, celebrities speak out about their problems with depression and mental illness. But visits to the psychiatrist are not the norm in this country, if they are anywhere in the world. To go to a psychiatrist is to admit that one is not able to handle pressure, which is seen as a failure in itself.
Perhaps one solution is to make counselling compulsory in all schools, colleges, and workplaces. If one has nothing to say or share, one could just have a chat about the weather and politics with a qualified counsellor or psychiatrist. But for as long as counselling remains optional, people will hesitate to consult a professional, even when they have access.
Some years ago, a study earmarked isolation, competition, and academic pressure as the most common reasons for student suicides at premier institutes.
These are never going to go away. Work pressure is never going to go away either. Even if you don't go to work, Facebook is watching.
Over the decades, we have fostered an environment where one's success is measured relative to everyone else's. We need to be more intelligent, richer, more ruthless, and wittier than everyone else. We also need to be happier than everyone else.
Under such circumstances, it becomes very easy to feel guilty for being a disappointment. It becomes easy to feel that one has let down oneself and one's family, that one is a financial or emotional drain on everyone else, and that the world would be better off without one.
We don't have the mechanisms to talk about why happiness has become so elusive. To admit that we need help means we are not as strong as everyone else. To admit that we are not happy means we are dropping out of the race.
And so, in our moments of distress, instead of turning to professionals, we turn to those we know and trust, hoping to hear a few words that click, something that will make us snap out of it. For many of us, this is enough.
But there are some who cannot "snap out of it". I recently read a tweet about how asking someone who is clinically depressed to "snap out of it" is like asking someone who is deaf to listen harder. And these people, who are as perfect and imperfect as the rest of their colleagues but plagued by something beyond their control, need to be able to speak about their problems in a safe environment, without being made to feel bad about themselves.
Mandatory counselling for everyone may be a good start.
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Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage. She sells herself and the book on www.nandinikrishnan.com