Soul-searching in India after spate of young suicides
Thu, Jan 07, 2010

MUMBAI, INDIA - A spate of young suicides in Mumbai has prompted concern in India, with the country's education system, family pressures, a hit film and television reality shows mooted as possible factors in the deaths.

Three youngsters were found hanged in the city last weekend: an 11-year-old girl, 12-year-old boy and an 18-year-old female medical student.

The young girl, Neha Sawant, who had appeared on several popular television talent competitions, was reportedly upset at her parents' decision to withdraw her from a dance academy.

The older girl is said to have taken her own life after failing exams while police are probing whether the boy killed himself in a "copycat" suicide, after seeing the blockbuster film "3 Idiots," which has a similar incident.

Suicide provides regular fare for Indian newspapers, with little or no commentary or professional advice to counsel those considering it as a way out.

But with three widely reported deaths in two days, mental health professionals have spoken out, amid fears other youngsters could follow suit.

"Suicide is a huge social problem," Sanjay Kumawat, president of the Bombay Psychiatric Society, told AFP.

India has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. The number of people taking their own lives grew a massive 27 percent in the decade to 2007, according to the latest available government statistics.

In 2007, 122,637 people killed themselves - the equivalent of about 336 every day. Most were under 30, with "family problems" cited as the main reason.

Five people committed suicide every day after failing exams, unable to cope with the stigma of failure or to face their families, who often stand to gain from having an successful child in a society where social status is key.

Despite a high suicide rate, Kumawat said public awareness of warning signs was alarmingly low.

Neha's father, for example, told reporters that his daughter had shown no signs of stress when she was told she should concentrate more on her studies than dancing.

Newspaper reports have said medical student Bajanjit Kaur had written on her bedroom walls, "I have to achieve my goal by securing good marks" and "I want to secure more than 80 per cent marks".

Kumawat said recent changes in society had made Indians - no strangers to hardship in a country long hit by poverty, inequality and natural disaster - less resilient.

"Twenty to 30 years ago, people could tolerate stress and adversity quite well, whether in academic, social, personal or family life. Tolerance thresholds have gone down, that's why frustration comes," he said.

Possible reasons include the erosion of support structures as more people shun the traditional "joint family" model, where parents and in-laws live together and all play a role in a child's upbringing, he suggested.

Busy parents, who may both be out at work, now have less time to spend with and talk to their children, who are often also sent to tutors to coach them for success in the country's fact-heavy, exam-based education system, he said.

"Communication is now quite bad," he added.

Kumawat's predecessor, Yusuf Matcheswalla, who runs counselling clinics in the city, said India's recent economic growth has brought benefits, like a better standard of living and disposable income.

But there were also downsides, as people in fast-paced cities especially concentrate more on work and consumption than family, friends and well-being.

"Clinical depression is becoming an epidemic," he said, citing World Health Organization (WHO) research that the condition will be the world's second leading cause of illness by 2020.

"Most depression goes unrecognised and untreated, particularly in children. It's very difficult to pick up.

"An adult can articulate what is happening and be given medicine and treatment. With childhood depression, the child is not able to vocalise what's going on," leading to misunderstandings among parents and teachers.

"Japan and China have faced this problem. We're facing it now," he said of children taking their own lives.

"These things are going to happen more and more as we become a richer country: more diabetes, psychological problems, high blood pressure, and heart attacks."

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