Attempting suicide may be a taboo in Kashmir’s conservative society but a lot of people across different age groups are taking the extreme step. Saima Riyaz reports.
They try to cover-up their act calling it an accident. “I accidently, poured poison into my tea instead of medicine,” claimed Shafiqa, 45. People usually refuse to admit their attempt to suicide even to doctors they are seeking help from, because of the social stigma attached to the act.
“Suicide is the result of many complex socio-cultural factors and in this society it is a taboo. Therefore patients feel reluctant to share their problems. We motivate them, build rapport, make them feel comfortable then they reveal the truth,” said Dr Muzaffar Jan, Post Graduate scholar, of Department of Psychiatry, Government Medical College, Srinagar.
Shafiqa a mother of four from Mirgund, consumed rat poison and was admitted in the SMHS hospital, Srinagar for a day. After all this, she thinks she has an explanation for her act. “Today children watch TV, use computer, cell phones, every kind of technology for entertainment and knowledge but my husband doesn’t understand this. He accuses them of wasting time and misusing money, beats them up, and makes big issues of trivial matters,” said Shafiqa.
Her husband considers her impatience as the root of the problem. “There are no worries in our life. We have a nuclear family. We eat and wear well but her impatience makes life hell. She does things in rage and that is why it happened,” said her husband who is a farmer.
The conflict started with Shafiqa’s husband advising the children. “I can’t spare the rod and spoil my children, which is what she wants me to do,” he explains. It is not the first time the family has gone through such an ordeal. Shafiqa has attempted suicide at least twice earlier.
“The first time she used a knife, second time an axe and now poison. Every time something goes against her whim she does it.”
In her latest attempt, she closed windows and door of the room, and gulped poison, then, he says, he had to break the door to save her.
He could have made to hospital quicker, if he had sought help from neighbors but he preferred a near-fatal delay over letting people know.
So he gave her some salt and milk which, he believes being an ancient remedy, helped till they reached the hospital. “It is embarrassing and brings bad name to the family. We would do anything to conceal it,” said one of the attendants of the patient.
Poverty is a factor that drives many young people to attempt to kill themselves. According to a study, ‘Psychiatric Morbidity in Adolescents and Young Adult Patients with Suicidal Attempt in Kashmir’ conducted by Dr Jan, the socio-economic status of most suicide attempters is on lower side. Eighty six percent of his subjects, he says, were from poor socio-economic status with income less than Rs. 5000 per month.
H Z Reinherz et al in 2006 found male subjects with suicidal ideation had lower salaries and socioeconomic status.
Ahmad, 30, the only son of a widowed mother, is so frustrated that he wants to kill himself anyhow.
“Poverty has robbed him of his peace of mind which is why he has tried almost every method of suicide,” said his mother. He has tried to drown himself many times due to which it no longer is a secret. “People know everything now as they rescue him whenever he attempts suicide,” she added.
Dr Muzaffar Jan says that some repeat the act many times. “Some people are bent on killing themselves, thus repeat the act many times. Others do it in a moment of anger or as a threat or are unsure of the outcome of their attempt or it is a cry for help or an attempt to gain attention,” said Jan.
For Sakeena, from Nishat, her first attempt, she believes was her last attempt. Sakeena and her husband, both in their early twenties had a “minor argument” after which she attempted suicide. Both of them are wondering why she did it on a trivial matter.
“Her attempt left not only me wondering but she too has no answers for it,” said her husband, who is a tailor.
She ate mosquito coil which, her husband says, was not fatal, but he took her to the hospital immediately.
“We concealed it in whatever way it was possible. Only my aunt knows about the incident,” he said.
Sakeena has regrets, as her act affected her and her family “badly”.
“I deeply regret now as from then on my health deteriorated. I have a two year old child whom I have to take care of. Besides I should not have done it on such a small matter. I won’t do it again,” said Sakeena.
For her the reaction of the society towards the people who attempt suicide is depressing. “When your family problems become public then people make you an object of ridicule. Rather than consoling or making you understand, they try to break your home,” she said.
She accepts her act as a mistake, but says, nobody is free of mistakes. “People don’t attempt suicide for fun. They have problems, big or small no matter, and they need counsel. We should live with harmony to stop such incidents and save people having such tendencies by dealing with them kindly,” opines Sakeena.
She wants to move forward now and forget the past, especially her attempt. “I don’t feel comfortable even talking about it now. I just want to forget past and move on in life,” she said.
Conflict or strain in relationships is not restricted to spouses. Asima from Pulwama consumed poison on a joyous occasion in her family after an argument with her sister. “A family party was going on when one of my sisters started an unnecessary argument,” said Asima.
She had some psychiatric problems in the childhood from which she had recovered but the conflict in the family sometimes pushes her back. “I am fine now but anger brings my problems back and that day her attitude was enough for anyone to commit suicide. She made me cry thrice till then and when my heart was full, it was difficult to bear; I ate poison – rat poison”. Both Asima and her sister regret their behaviour.
“I regret for taking such a step and she also apologized to me,” says Asima.
Like most, the family tried best to keep the incident a secret. “Few people among our extended family came to know (about the incident) but they know me and won’t think anything bad of me.”
Among teenagers, problems in affairs is another factor responsible for suicidal tendencies.
Tasleema from Tral attempted suicide many times and each time her sister rescued her. She has tried hanging herself, consumed poison twice and the second time the poison intake left her paralyzed. She moves in a wheelchair now. Despite spending lakhs of rupees she has not recovered fully.
“She is a liability for everyone. How would she manage after me? I just want her to die a natural death soon,” shared her sister.
Neighbours, sympathize with her and regret the damage she has done to herself.
“Children commit mistakes, which is quite normal but her mistake created problems more for her than anybody else,” said her neighbor, not wishing to be named.
Her sister is also concerned about the reputation of the family. “Neighbors don’t criticize or taunt us but they do talk about it and it has given bad name to the family,” she said.
Besides being a taboo, attempt to suicide is an offence. The offender is punished under section 309 of Indian Penal Code. According to Dr Jan, when the accompanying attendants come to know about police being informed about the incident, they do their best to hide facts and concoct a story to convince the police that it was an accident.
The majority of such patients who get to reach the hospital, he says, change the “nature of poison and the quantity consumed to make it fit in their story”. The World Health Organization has recognized suicide as a serious public health problem. Suicide rates vary across demographic groups, with some of the high rates in Kashmir in the last two decades due to conflict, Says Dr Jan.
The last two decades have also seen an increase in psychiatric disorders in Kashmir especially Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“Around two to three suicide attempters are admitted to SMHS per day – mostly youth and particularly females. It can be curbed by; first and foremost, timely treatment of mental illness, plus the society should treat them well,” said Dr Jan.
Social acceptance is important for people with such tendencies. “They should be given social support, not taunted,” adds Dr Jan. They need somebody to listen to them, to whom they can speak their heart out, who can embrace them so that they don’t have to embrace death.
(Some names have been changed to protect their identity)