‘I don’t think of suicide as a crime’

A six-time suicide survivor talks about how the new act, which decriminalises attempted suicide, helps others like her in healing.

Updated: Sep 12, 2018 10:25:52

By Uttama Ray

The new Mental Healthcare Act is a step in the right direction, as it normalises suicide survivors’s condition by not putting them in the way of the police and such traumatic situation. (Illustration: Rahul Krishnan)

Five years ago, I woke up in a government hospital in Kolkata with a dull pain in my stomach. I realized it wasn’t a physical ailment that was causing this, but a kind of hollow emptiness. I had failed my fourth attempt at taking my life. Since I was discovered by the police, a case was filed. Luckily, it wasn’t pursued and my frail parents were spared further harrowing times, and unpleasant legalities. Instead, I was asked to undergo counselling. The advice that I was given was both, mundane and puerile. I was told to adopt a baby, as that would solve my clinical condition. Hearing this, barely a week after I had survived an attempt, made me feel worse.

Till recently, suicide attempts were considered a crime as per section 309 of the Indian Penal Code. In 2011, the Supreme Court recommended that the Parliament should consider deleting this section. Though IT still remains, the new Mental Healthcare Act 2017, which was notified in May, has decriminalised suicide attempts. The new Act is a step in the right direction, as it normalizes a suicide survivor’s condition by not putting them in the way of the police and such traumatic situations.

Being a survivor, I am particularly happy about this, as I do not think of suicide as a crime. This notion in fact, comes from a religious-moralistic view that looks at suicide as an act of criminal intent against one’s own self, which in turn, is seen as a crime against God. But what this viewpoint ends up doing is creating an artificial binary, between a ‘criminal self ‘and a ‘victim self’ and this is certainly not helpful for suicide survivors.

I have been hospitalized for six attempts since I was 36; twice, I’ve missed death by a fraction. Some suicide attempts may be spontaneous responses to events like failing an exam, or facing abuse over a period of time, but that is not my story. In my opinion, a definitive cure does not exist. Suicide attempts are mostly born out of long-standing ideations.

This is why it is very important that a survivor visit a psychiatrist, because the diagnosis of any underlying condition, if there is one, is the first step towards healing. Taking proper medication for it is the second. I have been a dysthymic (now referred to as Persistent Depressive Disorder) and bipolar patient with pronounced suicidal tendency for almost 18 years. Without psychiatric help I would have not been able to function as normally as I do now.

Of course, while professional help is important, long-term treatment depends on those who live with you: close friends, family, parents, or partners. For them to just being there, not advising/ sermonising to you, but listening to you, is a great source of support. The best sort of counselling is when family and close friends are also included in the process. It is here that they can learn to identify tell tale signs in the survivor, like if they are always feeling like crying, getting irritated easily, behaving erratically, or suddenly going completely quiet.

There is a mistaken assumption that attempting suicide is a kind of attention-seeking. This is a harsh and inhumane assessment. Sometimes, taking one’s own life could even be a sign of protest against a prevailing socio-political condition. The cases of self-immolation during the Mandal agitation or, more recently, the extremely tragic suicide of Dalit student activist Rohith Vemula, are cases in point.

Surviving a suicide may bring relief to family members, but the survivor often feels remorse. On top of that is the burden of shame and stigma. I’ve found that talking about being a survivor, especially with others who are survivors too, is helpful to counter such stigma. In Kolkata, I was part of a survivors’ group: we all felt that we understood each other, even when we weren’t being rational. Listening to someone’s experiences is therapeutic too. Survivors need to talk about their experiences because sharing helps them unburden themselves and feel less alone. When people really understand you, you feel happy.

Personally, I have also learnt to make a habit of not thinking about some things. At first this was not easy, especially if something that I found very painful happened. For me, suicidal ideation has also declined after finding romantic love. Feeling responsible for someone, caring for someone else, has certainly helped me. We all need to learn that there is a point to living, and all of us are worthy, in whatever way it takes.

(The author, 54, is a professor of history at Rammohan College, University of Calcutta)

First Published: Sep 12, 2018 10:25:25


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