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     Volume 5 Issue 108 | August 18, 2006|

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Special Feature

NOT the

Kajalie Shehreen Islam

For most of us, life is spent in the living. School, work, family and friends, making ends meet, and trying to make life as good as it can be. But for many of us, it’s actually about not having to do these things, and, when things get to be too much, trying to find a way out.

At least 10 people committed suicide in the last weeks of July and first weeks of August in Dhaka alone, according to reports published in one national daily. Among them were a domestic worker scolded by her employer, a young girl harassed by local goons, two men who had had arguments with their wives, a medical student, a university student and a journalist, both of whom had brilliant academic records and bright futures ahead of them.

Every time the SSC and HSC results are published, a number of students who failed the exams commit suicide. This year, a young man and woman who got GPA-5 in their SSC exams both killed themselves. Apparently, they were in love, and when the boy went to congratulate the girl and took sweets to her house, the girl’s parents scolded him for being involved with their daughter. He went home and took poison. The next morning, after hearing of his death, the girl hung herself.

According to an International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (ICDDR,B) study, mortality from suicide in Bangladesh occurred at a rate of 39.6 per 100,000 population from the years 1983 to 2002 -- rates substantially higher than reported elsewhere in Asia. According to the same study, suicide accounted for 42 percent of deaths among young people between the ages of 10 and 19. Eighty-nine percent of suicide-associated deaths in this age group were in females.

What drives people to suicide? What makes life so unbearable, especially for young people who have hardly even seen the world, that they actually want to end it? Perhaps this is where we make the mistake, failing to understand just how bad it can get, regardless of how young or old you are, and failing to provide help, as simply as by talking someone out of it.

Rina (not her real name), felt neglected by her busy working parents whom she saw only three or four days a month. As young as 12 or 13, she started smoking, drinking and taking drugs. She was taken to psychiatrists around the world for her depression and given a lot of medication. But rather than helping, they served to worsen her condition. She gained a tremendous amount of weight and became frustrated that no man would ever want her because of the way she looked. She tried to commit suicide three times. Finally she met a man with whom she became physically involved, but after that ended, at about the age of 18, she tried again to kill herself by slitting her wrists. Luckily, she failed. But Rina has no regrets. She feels that no one can understand what her life is like, and that she was right to do what she did. She even claims that she enjoys the pain. An extremely smart woman and a brilliant writer, according to friends, Rina now lives abroad, still submerged in the world of drugs and dealers, but still, miraculously, alive.

A couple of years ago, 25-year-old Fatima (not her real name) tried to kill herself after an argument with her husband which “just got to be too much”. He, however, was able to stop her just in time. Thinking back, Fatima realises how silly and selfish she was being. Not only was suicide not the solution to her problems, but rather, if she had succeeded, it would have created even greater problems, especially for the loved ones she would have left behind.

Not everyone has the luxury of hindsight, however.

Novera Deepita, a journalist and former student of Dhaka University with brilliant academic records, committed suicide late last month. She had been depressed for some months after a miscarriage. The acute sense of loss, combined with a history of schizophrenia as well as other physical ailments, led her to end her own life, to the shock of family members, friends and colleagues, who failed to see, behind her smiling face, the emptiness in her heart.

Swapna, a 13-year-old who lived in a slum in Pallabi, was being harassed for many days, by local goons. Because of political enmity between her father and the patron of the goons, three or four of them would often stop her on her way to school or back, threatening to kidnap and rape her and her mother. When Swapna told her mother about it, her mother simply told her that she was too young to be worried about these things. But the 13-year-old’s fears got the better of her, and on July 21 of this year, she killed herself.

Who were not to blame, we may ask. The local hoodlums who made life hell for her, the local people who did nothing to protect her, or her own mother, who failed to understand her fear and her pain?

It’s a combination of many factors, says Dr. Mahmudur Rahman, psychotherapist and clinical psychologist. An unplanned, unsafe and unsympathetic society, poor policy and mismanagement of the whole system, all contribute to not only social disintegration but also individual disillusionment with life, something we so often neglect.

Suicide can be incited by a variety of factors, says Rahman, also Chairperson of the Department of Clinical Psychology, University of Dhaka. Reasons may range from extreme poverty -- where ending one’s life seems a better option than being unable to afford food or an education for oneself or one’s children -- to affluence. Rahman cites 12 possible reasons for suicide as given by Dr. Anton JL Van Hooff in his book From Autothanasia to Suicide. These include shame; psychological pain, mourning, distress-anxiety; unbearable physical disorders -- pain; frenzy-manic behaviour; ostentatious self-sacrifice (like Socrates); tiredness of life (of the aged), objective or subjective guilt. Other causes may be external necessity, devotion to a cause -- heroism; loyalty to a leader or spouse, despairing of deliverance or loss of hope; or to bring a curse upon somebody -- hostility, as in the case of rejected love, to teach them a lesson or never let them forget what they have done.

The late Md. Habibur Rahman, Professor and former Head of the Department of Social Welfare, Shahjalal University of Science and Technology in Sylhet, conducted a study on suicide in Jhenidah, where the highest number of suicides occur in Bangladesh. This study revealed the following as being dominant reasons behind the trend: poor economic condition, dowry, domestic feuds, deterioration of domestic values, family problems, lack of education, etc. More specifically, for women, torture by husbands and in-laws, extra-marital affairs of husbands, torture by the husband’s other wife, torture due to failure to pay dowry, conspiracies to prove the wife immoral, along with reasons such as failed love, sexual relations and abortions due to pregnancies outside wedlock, forced marriages, etc. all caused more women than men to commit suicide.

Everyone has their own way of dealing with life and with their problems, says Dr. Mahmudur Rahman. While some people don’t care what kind of a life they’re living, others are very conscious and if they don’t have things the way they deem correct, they will try and end it, whether it is by deliberate suicide or risky behaviour such as dangerous driving, which ultimately leads to self-harm.

Dr. Rahman cites one case of a doctor who attempted twice to kill herself. The woman always had an extreme sense of responsibility and drive to do well. Through counselling, this was traced back to a history of childhood molestation. It was this memory against which she was always fighting, trying to be the best in everything she did to make up for her "defect". The conflict within herself caused trouble in her relationships, including that with her boyfriend. Once she was relieved of the abuse issue by talking to her doctor, however, she stabilised and settled down in life.

In another case, a very religious college principal was disturbed by the fact that his own family was not as religious as he was, and that college rules were often broken and that he couldn’t stop it. At one point, he began to question what his faith had actually given him and then he began to feel like an infidel for losing faith. Again, because he finally felt that he didn’t have the faith any more, he felt it was all right to kill himself, which was otherwise considered a sin in his religion. If he could have resolved the conflict, he may not have ended up taking his own life.

Another woman who was cheated on by her boyfriend almost killed herself by jumping from the sixth floor of a building because she couldn’t bear the insult, says Dr. Rahman. He cites yet another case in which a boy from a dysfunctional family could not bear the knowledge of his schizophrenic sister being sexually abused by a family member. Though he was a very good writer, his talents were never appreciated in the family. Rather, he was reprimanded by his strict father for his lack of social skills and this caused severe damage to his self-esteem. He took sleeping pills a couple of times but fortunately the pills did not have the desired effect. And, instead of getting sympathy from his family, he was scolded even more harshly for what he tried to do. “The only reason he hasn’t killed himself yet,” says Dr. Rahman, “is that he seeks perfection even in death. He is afraid that he may not die and will be in a worse state if he tries to kill himself and fails.”

“Most people who commit or try to commit suicide,” says Dr. Rahman, “are very philosophically charged. They often find no meaning to life and they must be given a meaning through philosophical negotiation to want to live.”

“In our country,” continues Rahman, “people don’t have a place to share their thoughts and their pain and the cumulative distress builds up, often leading to suicide.”

Not only do they not get help, but they are provoked even further by the lack of sympathy and understanding of those close to them, he says. He cites the case of a mother who actually blamed her daughter when the girl accused her uncles and teachers of sexually abusing her.

In many families, those who do well at school or have successful careers are highly encouraged, but those who lag behind are neglected, and thus pushed further behind into the dark abyss of depression. Alienation in general, largely due to individualistic society today, where people are isolated unto themselves with their own television shows, computers, jobs, etc., causes many a person to feel lonely and depressed.

People who are suicidal often give cues that those around them could but don’t pick up. “They withdraw,” says Dr. Rahman. “They engage in unusual behaviour, give away their favourite things, as if planning and preparing to leave the world. Often, they even verbalise their thoughts by saying things like ‘I’m tired of life’ or ‘What’s the use of living?’ We should never ignore these cues, because people don’t just say them.”

“Sometimes,” says Rahman, “just talking to the person for a while helps. If they can get through the time when they are highly excited or highly depressed (the latter is when most people attempt suicide), they might be all right. Though,” adds the doctor, “often those who are suicidal do try again.”

“If things get out of control, people should seek professional help. But even on a personal level, those close to the individual can help by just talking to them, finding out what’s wrong and providing relief,” says Dr. Rahman.

The problem, says the doctor, is that we don’t understand suicidal attitudes. We must become more aware and sympathetic to such cases, he says, because it is a major problem. Not only are such deaths a loss to the individuals and their families, but to the society and the economy as a whole.

The government and its various ministries should understand this and address the issue, recommends Rahman. One way might be to have a hotline or helpline as in many countries where people contemplating suicide can call and talk about their problems and gain at least temporary release and assistance. A supportive environment is very important, says Dr. Rahman. We should treat the issue not as a taboo subject but as the real, important issue that it is. On a macro level, we need to counter external threats, providing protection from harassment, rape, etc., which cause shame, anger, distress and provoke people to commit suicide. Ensuring a safe and secure environment will solve many problems. On the micro level, we can increase our own knowledge of the issue and try and help those close to us by providing a place for sharing and relieving themselves of the problems that make them want to end their lives.

Suicides have occurred ever since human beings have been around. In ancient times, they were considered to be the consequence of immoral behaviour. Even today, suicide is regarded as a sin in many religions. Now it is more acceptable as the result of a clinical condition. In most countries, though, it is considered to be a crime for which anyone attempting it is punishable by law.

Whatever the cause, whatever the situation, suicide is not the way out. Not only does it fail to solve the problems of the person committing it, but it causes even more pain and distress to those left behind, with no scope for closure. A much more practical way of dealing with a problem is by talking about it -- to family members, friends, professional counsellors. Suicidal tendency or depression in general is a clinical condition that can be treated. It is not something to be ashamed of and it is definitely not something we should ignore, deny or condemn. Increasing our sensitivity to those who need help, giving them a place where they can find relief from their problems, can help save many lives from being lost so unjustifiably.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2006