Sticks and Stones: Facebook Suicide

India has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, perhaps the highest in the 20 – 35 age group.
But our laws on suicide are archaic and frankly, ridiculous.

In India, a person who attempts suicide is a criminal – according to section 309, “Whoever attempts to commit suicide and does any act towards the commission of such offense, shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year or with fine, or with both.”

It is ridiculous to prosecute a person who has just tried to kill himself or herself. This law points to a deeper problem – that people often think of suicide as rational and volitional, an act of a person who can reasonably appraise their current situation and the consequences of their actions.

Nothing could be further from the truth – suicide occurs when emotional problems or mental illness makes a person believe that death is the only way out of misery; the person is driven by emotional forces that are sabotaging the normal workings of the mind. Such a person needs our empathy, support and treatment, not prosecution and harassment.

Although the law might be revoked soon, unfortunately, the public’s perceptions of suicide will take a while longer to change.

Recently, an IIM student, Malini Murmu, a 22 year old girl committed suicide.
A day before her suicide, her boyfriend allegedly broke up with her and posted a self-congratulatory, insensitive and cruel message on Facebook.
He is alleged to have said, “’Feeling super cool today. Dumped my new ex-girlfriend. Happy Independence Day.”

Apparently, she hung herself shortly after reading the message.

My heart goes out to her family and friends. Her death is a tragic loss.

While I completely empathize with her family’s attempts at trying to make sense of her death by blaming the boyfriend, the sad truth is that nobody is to blame for her death, not even Malini herself. Suicide is an impulsive action, and often indicates a pre-existing emotional problem, perhaps depression in this case. Depression is a clinical illness, causing hypersensitivity to rejection, a loss of self-esteem, hopelessness and worthlessness; in this context, even the breakup of a relationship might seem like a good reason to kill oneself.

But it is incorrect and ultimately destructive to attribute Malini’s suicide to the boyfriend’s post on Facebook, however cruel and immature it was.

I have been really saddened and frustrated by the way that the media in India has been reporting on this story and suicide in general.

Even therapists seem to be either misquoted or misinformed. A “relationship expert” on NDTV was quoted as saying, “With relationships starting and ending on Facebook, youngsters do not realize that public embarrassment often may drive people to kill themselves.”

Utterly ridiculous.

If public embarrassment results in suicide, then Facebook is the most dangerous site in the world.

Our media often reports on suicide in a way that indicates widespread misconceptions about suicide and mental illness. Suicide is often seen as a mystery, a conundrum that has a singular answer; and reporters often try to answer the question, why did this person commit suicide? The reporter then goes on to explore and investigate external circumstances often resulting in the harassment of those left behind: Did the mother shout at the daughter on the day of the suicide? Did the girlfriend say something hurtful?

The incorrect assumption seems to be that there is always a direct, proximate, and reasonable external cause for the suicide.

Read any story about suicide in our newspapers and you will see sentences such as:

He committed suicide due to financial problems
She killed herself due to chronic back pain.

(By the way, chronic pain is often a result of depression or other undiagnosed and untreated emotional problems)

Now the words “due to”, implies that there’s a direct cause and effect between the event and a subsequent suicide.

These statements ignore the fact that suicide occurs because of problems in the mind, not due to external circumstances – stress is often a matter of perception, and perception is altered by states of mind, and states of mind altered by mental illnesses.

In a sense, a misinformed media lays the groundwork for further suicide, or at the very least does not play the important role that it could in suicide prevention.

Let me be clear – there’s no doubt that Malini’s death and suicide is a tragedy, a devastation for her family, her friends and for society. But to attribute the cause of her death to the boyfriend’s words on a social networking site, indicates a tragic lack of understanding of the emotional forces that lead to suicide.

When relationships break up, people are often going to say hurtful things – Facebook just records these words for posterity.

But the act of suicide is almost always an irrational one and often a result of a mental illness.

While the boyfriend’s words would not have helped Malini’s state of mind, when we say that he is directly responsible for her actions, we are implying that killing oneself is an understandable and reasonable response to emotionally hurtful words. Surely, this cannot be true? If it were so, then we are all in danger of either committing suicide, or precipitating suicide – intemperate and hurtful speech is unfortunately a part of human experience.

Tragic as Malini’s death is, we would be doing her and her family a disservice by demonizing the boyfriend, by implying that she killed herself over this immature man.
By holding his words responsible for her death, we are sending out the message that young women are vulnerable and weak, and would understandably kill themselves if their relationships didn’t work out.

No relationship is worth killings oneself of course.
Instead we could prevent suicide if the media and society at large informs people of the truth – that emotional distress, when it crosses a certain threshold, indicates the need for professional intervention, that emotional problems and stress are treatable , and that events by themselves are almost never the direct cause of suicide.

Human beings desire explanations. We desire meaning, especially when confronted by tragedy. And so we often look for a direct and simple explanation.
But in trying to understand suicide, let us not compound the tragedy by reaching for simplistic explanations.

There are thousands of Malinis out there. Our task is to ensure that we prevent deaths, that her suicide was if nothing else a wake-up call.

Here’s what we need from the media:

1) More responsible and informed reporting on suicide. I would urge reporters to spend more time understanding the causes of suicide, and in their reporting, to explore the role of mental illness in the causation of suicide.

2) To avoid sensationalizing the issue, and seeking simplistic explanations.

Finally, if you have a friend or family member who seems chronically sad, negative, hopeless or feeling a low sense of self-esteem, or has a history of impulsive acts when emotionally distressed, then reach out to him or her, get them to see a mental health professional.

Many suicides can be prevented by intervention before it’s too late.

Only with the the participation of an enlightened public and media, can we reduce the frightening and tragic epidemic of suicide in our country.

September 25, 2011 | 5:07 am | By Dr Shyam Bhat
Tagged under: , , , ,