Sorry state: NCRB data on suicide rate in Kerala paints a worrying picture

TNIE speaks to experts to figure out where we are going wrong
For representational purposes
For representational purposes

KOCHI: It’s yet another Kerala paradox. The state, which boasts high literacy rates and an enviable quality of life, has been witnessing a steady, worrisome rise in suicide rate. First, some number-crunching. While in 2020, 8,500 people died by suicide in the state, in 2021 it rose to 9,549 and in 2022, it was 10,162, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).

This year, as per official data available till August, at least 1,046 people between the ages of 18 and 30 died by suicide in the state. Kerala ranks fourth in the country in terms of suicide rate, following Sikkim, Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry. And, as per the NCRB data, the suicide incidence rate in the state stood at 28.5 per lakh of the population in 2022.

While NCRB releases data every year, the gravity of the issue has become more apparent, considering a string of suicides that recently made headlines in the state. This included suicides due to agrarian and financial distress, which led to political debates. More recent shockers were the deaths of two young medicos.

On December 8, Adithi Benny, a third-year MBBS student of Gokulam Medical College, Venjaramoodu, in Thiruvananthapuram died due to critical injuries she suffered after jumping from the fourth floor of her hostel.

Dr P V Benny, HoD of community medicine at college, told TNIE that Adithi was on medication for depression. “She had come to the hostel to take her belongings. Her mother was waiting in the hall when she took the extreme step,” he said.

On December 5, Dr Shahana, a junior resident doctor at the Government Medical College in Thiruvananthapuram, was found dead in her room. She took the extreme step, when her fiance, another doctor from the same institute, backed out of marriage because her family could not meet the exorbitant dowry demands.

Her suicide note has become evidence, making her case a dowry-related death. Incidentally, 11 doctors in the state have died by suicide this year. These cases serve as a poignant reminder that well-educated people are vulnerable to taking extreme steps during challenging situations.

One main reason for this unhealthy trend is the academic and societal neglect towards the emotional quotients or EQ, notes senior psychiatrist Dr C J John, who is a member of the State Mental Health Authority.“The education system itself is heavily IQ-oriented. Without a system change, we cannot make any positive changes that may help the growing generations,” he tells TNIE.

According to him, the first step is understanding the importance of EQ and developing and improving life skills for young people who are growing up in a rapidly changing society.“Empathy, coping with stress, interpersonal relationships and self-awareness... These important factors are being ignored,” he adds, emphasising the urgent need for measures to enhance the EQ of the next generation.“Emotional fragility is something that should be addressed and rectified.”

Teenagers at risk

There is, indeed, a worrying spike in suicide incidents among teenagers, notes psychologist Nishad KC, a senior counsellor of DISHA, a 24/7 mental health support centre run by the state government.  In a recent therapy session, he came across a 17-year-old, who complained about “lacking personal space” as his parents always inquired about his day-to-day life and academics.“The teen viewed the parental gestures as forms of infringement and restriction,” says Nishad.“The teenager’s rant was worrying. ‘If I am not here anymore, they will have to stop, right?’ he asked me. There was a challenging tone to it.”

He adds that a majority in the current generation of children, especially teenagers, are highly intelligent and equally headstrong. It is not easy to convince them of the need to understand other perspectives.
“Intelligence without the desired emotional growth – that is what I have been witnessing,”  says Nishad. “Poor communication or social skills is another problem. Lack of healthy interpersonal relationships is a primary reason for cracking up in high-stress situations. One needs a trusted group of people – a support system – to open up and discuss issues.”

Intricacies of friendship have also changed. In what could be a worrying trend, a gang mentality is emerging among youngsters, who support each other’s daring and legally questionable activities, including fights, substance abuse to many others.“And substance abuse is one of the leading reasons for suicides,” he says.

Emphasis on life skills

The solution, mental health experts echo, is effective life skill training, right from school curriculum to higher education.“Covid and the emergence of social isolation have created a new phenomenon, where many still lack connection with society,” says Dr Arun B Nair, a psychiatrist at Government Medical College Thiruvananthapuram.

The digital world and social media have contributed to people depending on the virtual world for instant pleasure and relief. However, when life throws a curveball, and challenges emerge, they lack people around them to open up about their issues.

The lack of healthy friendships and relationships has to be addressed from home and school itself, Dr Arun insists. “Lessen the dependency on digital gadgets, and make sure children get to socialise with parents and at school,” he says.“Also, equipping students and student counsellors to identify the signs of mental health issues will help them support peers who are going through a difficult time.”

Notably, Dr John, Dr Arun and Nishad unanimously call for mental wellness to be made part of the curriculum. With mental health becoming a subject, suicide concerns can be addressed to a large extent, they believe. Other villains, Dr Arun adds, are untreated mental health issues due to stigma, substance addiction, work pressure, and interpersonal conflicts.

“Work pressure, a major reason for the suicide among medicos and other high-stress jobs, can be addressed with a better system,” he says. “Hire more staff, adhere to set work hours, ensure every employee has time for leisure activities and family life... These are some progressive steps employers should take.”

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