A multi-dimensional malaise

Print edition : April 14, 2001
ASHA KRISHNAKUMAR

THAT suicides constitute a common phenomenon in Andhra Pradesh, whether it is among cotton and tobacco farmers or powerloom and handloom weavers is an oft-repeated statement by officials. But is there a "proclivity" among certain groups of people to commit suicide?

Lumps of potassium nitrate of the kind that laced the toddy consumed by despairing weavers to commit suicide.-P.V. SIVAKUMAR

No, says Dr. Lakshmi Vijayakumar, vice-president of the International Association for Suicide Prevention. "It is a multi-dimensional malaise, with social, economic, cultural, medical, philosophical and psychological roots," says the Chennai-based doctor.

In Andhra Pradesh, it is more of a social malaise, with no single underlying reason, but the consequence of a multitude of distress factors.

The central issue of all research on suicides is whether they are the result of problems with the individual or society. Many argue that depressed people commit suicide and, hence, society cannot be blamed. But studies show that less than a third of those depressed commit suicide. So, this argument is untenable. A combination of factors, including depression, is responsible for suicides.

Suicides in Andhra Pradesh which, in recent years, have become more widespread and general, need to be assessed from a sociological perspective. French sociologist Emile Durkheim, a proponent of the "society is responsible" theory, classifies suicides into four categories depending on how well the people have integrated into society.

First, egotistic suicides of, say, people in transitional societies, where their aspirations are high but it is accompanied by the breakdown of the traditional support systems. Second, anomic, owing to sudden changes in, for instance, market conditions leading to the breakdown of entitlements. Third, altruistic, owing to the total integration with society, such as self-sacrifice for the country. Fourth, fatalistic suicides by people with no hope of survival, such as prisoners of war.

The suicides by weavers and farmers of Andhra Pradesh fall into the anomic category. But even in this case only the most vulnerable, who are confronted with several miseries - of health, income, psychological and social - tend to end their lives. They look at it as solving the problem.

But why are suicides among Andhra Pradesh weavers occurring in certain pockets? There is the phenomenon of "exposure to suicides", which is important in cases of "imitative" suicides. Cluster, or contagious, suicides are common among vulnerable groups or communities.

Thus, in the case of Andhra Pradesh weavers, the suicides are clearly because of sudden changes in their economic situation and, as a consequence, their living conditions becoming extremely precarious. That many suicides happen among the vulnerable in certain pockets leads to the "imitation syndrome". But, even in such cases, only the most vulnerable commit suicide.

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