In February this year, a couple and their 21-year-old daughter died by suicide in their apartment in Kolkata. Bijoy Chatterjee used to run a small business in the Burrabazar area that provided for his stay-at-home wife and their daughter who was a law student in Falta. Subsequent police investigations revealed that acute financial distress arising from business losses drove the family to take their lives.
In May, four members of a family in Pune died by suicide. Deepak Thote, his wife, son and daughter were found dead in their Keshav Nagar apartment in Mundhwa locality. Once again, police investigations pointed towards financial problems pushing the family to end their lives. A Google search throws up 59 news items of families dying by suicide in the past two years.
Last year, there were news reports of a disturbing case of attempted family suicide. Ramrao Bhat, a 58-year-old businessman, stopped his car at the roadside and poured petrol on himself, his wife and son and set everyone ablaze. Other road users intervened, the wife and son survived, but Bhat succumbed to severe burns. A suicide note found in the car revealed that Bhat was in heavy debt due to business losses.
In the majority of cases, according to police investigations, this extreme step was taken by the head of the family, who was also the sole earning member. The common thread in all these tragic cases is financial distress, either due to business losses or job loss.
These cases highlight how financial distress is destroying lives. The economic slowdown, upheavals caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, rising living expenses and falling income levels have emerged as significant factors that are driving people into severe depression. These cases do not include instances of farmer suicides due to acute financial distress. Middle class people driven to suicide due to financial crisis is one of the most underreported stories of the past few years since the derailment of the economy that was set in motion by the ill-conceived demonetisation.
Mental health experts say that these numbers could be higher as all cases are not reported, especially in rural and semi-urban areas. They say psychological stress can trigger severe clinical depression, which can then lead to extreme situations. “In most such cases, the intense psychological stress leading to depression becomes so acute that they start believing that nothing can save them,” says Dr Jaswant Jangra, senior resident, Department of Psychiatry, AIIMS, Delhi. “In many of these cases, the head of the family was not able to take care of the basic needs of the family. In such situations, the affected person starts believing that if they alone die by suicide, the rest of the family will suffer even more. This drives them to the point where they first take the lives of their family members before dying by suicide.”
Often, the mental health professionals point out, the underlying symptoms of depression and severe stress remain undetected, resulting in impulsive decisions triggered by some proximate cause. “The intensity of depressive feelings is not always high; but can wash over a person like a crashing wave when there is a surge,” explains Dr Swrandeep Singh, a Delhi-based psychiatrist. “It can be triggered in a flash in situations of high stress like financial distress and can push a person to take the extreme step of ending their life. Clinical depression needs treatment like any other disease. The underplay of biological, psychological, and social factors needs to be understood for suicide prevention. A pure bio-centric approach for treating depression is not advisable.”
Financial distress emerged as the common factor in most of the cases in which the household head killed his family and then died by suicide. The cycle of debt to either keep businesses running or meet the spiralling cost of living put an unbearable burden on the main earner of the family. Unable to pay the debt, fear of social shaming drove them to the final step. “When debts start piling up, people tend to lose their self-esteem. Getting trapped in a cycle of debt to pay off previous loans or losses leads to a situation where a person starts to feel helpless. At such a time, the next stage is the fear of social shaming by those who have loaned the money — be it banks or the local money lender. The situation gets even more complicated if a person is suffering from illnesses such as depression, psychosis,or schizophrenia, which impair the ability to make rational judgements and creates situations of alternate reality,” says Jangra.
Data from the 2020 National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report reveals a disturbing upward trend of death by suicides due to financial burden. It states that 10,662 people died by suicide due to unemployment, bankruptcy, and debt burden. In 2020, a total of 1,53,052 suicides were reported in India, which was a 10% increase in comparison to 8.7% rise in 2019. The report notes that loss of business and commercial activity in 2020 due to the lockdown was a major contributing factor in the rise of suicides.
The 2021 edition of the report, in the chapter titled, ‘Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India’, records that 20,231 self-employed people died by suicide of whom 12,055 were categorised as businessmen, vendors, tradesmen, and other self-owned businesses. The same report notes that family problems and illness were major causes of suicides, accounting for 33.2% and 18.6% of deaths, respectively. Drug abuse and alcohol addiction accounted for 6.4%, marriage related issues for 4.8%, love affairs for 4.6%, bankruptcy or indebtedness for 3.9%, unemployment for 2.2%, failure in examinations for 1%, professional and career problems for 1.6% and poverty for 1.1%.
In 2021, a total of 1,64,033 people died by suicide, representing a 7.2% increase over the previous year. Between 2017 and 2021 the Rate of Suicide ratio — defined by the incidence of suicides per 100,000 people — has increased from 9.9 to 12, which confirms the upward trend.
The report notes that “each suicide is a personal tragedy that prematurely takes the life of an individual and has a continuing ripple effect, affecting the lives of families, friends and communities. Every year, more than 1,00,000 people commit suicide in our country. There are various causes of suicides like professional/career problems, sense of isolation, abuse, violence, family problems, mental disorders, addiction to alcohol, financial loss, chronic pain etc. NCRB collects data on suicides from police recorded suicide cases.”
A note prepared by the World Health Organisation says, “While the link between suicide and mental disorders (in particular, depression and alcohol use disorders) is well established in high-income countries, many suicides happen impulsively in moments of crisis with a breakdown in the ability to deal with life stresses, such as financial problems, relationship break-up or chronic pain and illness.”