Anamika* was ten, when on a cold December morning, she found her mother in a comatose state from an overdose of sleeping pills. Her parents’ marriage had been in disarray and the families had deemed divorce out of the question. This, she reasoned much later, must have seemed like the only way out for her mother.
Anamika remembers the violence in vivid detail: both verbal and physical abuse was routine at home. “I once saw my father pull my mother by the hair out of their bedroom,” she said. “That fight started when she told him they shouldn’t sleep in the same bed anymore.”
When she found her mother nearly dead, Anamika, who is now 35, said she remembered “feeling like I was watching a stranger... and that I was a stranger in my own home, which was suddenly filled with these doctors pushing tubes down this woman’s body”.
What made this profoundly disturbing experience worse was that Anamika’s grandmother, who had always shared an antagonistic relationship with Anamika’s mother, called the police immediately after to register a case against her daughter-in-law.
“My mother was still slurring and barely conscious when the inspector came to take her statement,” Anamika recalled. “She tried again a few days later. Bringing in the police didn’t help. If anything, bringing them in as a threat made it worse for her.”
The matter was played down and charges dropped once the police had a long talk with her grandfather, but the experience shaped the rest of Anamika’s life. She was fourteen when she tried to end her life for the first time. Since then, she has attempted suicide at least half a dozen times. Her own attempts at killing herself have mirrored that of her mother thrice – once, she took over fifty sleeping pills. “That was an epic fail,” she said smiling wryly, as we sat in her doctor’s empty waiting room. Twice, she’s tried to slit her wrist, and once she ate rat poison. “It only makes you throw up,” she said. “Or maybe I didn’t eat enough, I don’t know.”
Until March, attempting suicide was a criminal offence. If people tried to end their lives and somehow survived, they could be prosecuted under the draconian Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code. Instead of mandating suicide watch, or therapy, Indian law would be used to put suicidal people on trial, and eventually in jail for at least a year. The court, in amounts decided by judges, would also fine such persons. In numerous cases, suicidal people have been fined up to Rs 10,000 or Rs 20,000.
The Law Commission of India recommended repealing the section in its 42nd report dated 1971. Then, again in October 2008, it pointed out in a paper that “the World Health Organization has in regard to attempted suicide expressed the view that punishing with imprisonment a behaviour consequent to either a mental disorder or a social difficulty gives completely a wrong message to the population”.
Diagnosed with severe clinical depression at the age of sixteen, Anamika was taken to a psychiatrist by her father after her third suicide attempt. For the past nine years, she has made erratic trips to a psychologist. Another psychiatrist has put her on medication for depression. “One to wake my soul up; another to make it sleep at night,” she said. “I’m basically living on life support, but in the form of pills.”
The medication has helped, but she has not given up on the idea of suicide completely. “I think of these attempts as monumental failure on my part because – for the love of god – how many tries does it take before I can get this pain to end?”
Anamika is not certain if she is better yet. But suicide in many ways is a way to reclaim the sense of agency that life has deprived her of.
“When that feeling takes over me, that kind of hopelessness I feel… it feels better to not feel at all… no law has ever stopped me from wanting to end everything in that moment,” she said. “It’s not like the government could help me feel differently, so why should I care whether they agree with my decision or they don’t?”
The issue of decriminalising suicide has been repeatedly taken up by courts across the country. In a 1981 judgement, the Delhi High Court said, “A young man has allegedly tried to commit suicide presumably because of over emotionalism. It is ironic that… the result is that a young boy driven to such frustration so as to seek one’s own life would have escaped human punishment if he had succeeded but is to be hounded by the police, because attempt has failed”.
Five years later, while deciding the case Maruti Shripati Dubal v State of Maharashtra, the Bombay High Court pointed out that “no deterrence is going to hold back those who want to die for a social or political cause or to leave the world either because of the loss of interest in life or for self-deliverance”.
By passing the Mental Health Bill 2017, the Indian government took note of such arguments, and a more humane and logical stance towards those who feel driven to self-harm. The Act passed by the Lok Sabha on March 27, read down Section 309 of the IPC. As the law stands today, attempted suicides have been decriminalised. Instead, the Act creates an automatic assumption, that “any person who attempts to commit suicide shall be presumed, unless proved otherwise, to have severe stress”.
Eleven years ago, SL* stared through teary eyes at the grey tiles on her bathroom floor. Hours ago, she had been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, a chronic disease which causes symptoms including vision loss, pain, fatigue and impaired coordination. The disease doesn’t reduce life expectancy, but as a patient loses motor skills, including speech, vision, MS severely affects a patient’s quality of life. A lively, stylish, 25-year-old corporate manager for Ernst & Young, SL wondered if she would see her 26th year. Given the disease’s slow and painful decline, did she even want to?
“Should I just kill myself?” she asked her best friend on the phone. The thought of leaving her parents behind, the fear that they would be harassed for her suicide held her back. “The decision to take my life had to be with me being diagnosed with MS, and it was my decision entirely if I had come to it.”
Much like the courts, numerous mental health professionals have stated that Section 309 of the IPC had no deterrent effect on a person who is already suicidal. “There’s a lot that happens when suicidal thoughts start surfacing... inter-personal causes such as disappointments on the work/ family/ relationship front, including loneliness and feelings of being unwanted,” said Dr Lubhana Malik, an independent psychotherapist who specialises in family and couples work. “Many clients feel that their families/relationship partner would be better off, if they did not exist or that the lives of their loved ones would not change even if they committed suicide.”
Now 38, SL has moved homes, changed jobs and lives life to the fullest: trying every adventure thrown her way, mincing no words about the experience when she speaks even to strangers. Yet, the weight of the disease is ever-present on her mind. The decision to not take her life is one she said was “a cowardly one”.
The effects of IPC Section 309 remain long-standing. It is responsible, in some part, for the stigma around suicide attempts, which prevents people from coming out with their stories. The subjects for this story requested that they remain anonymous despite the law’s repeal.
“Some times people do register cases, but the reason to report can usually be traced back to some enmity, not concern,” said a Delhi Police officer who wished to remain unidentified. He added that often families pass off attempted suicide as an accident, especially if the person who tried to kill themselves is young, or female, because the family fears that they could be slapped with an additional charge of cruelty to women.
The new Act has been hailed by mental health professionals as ushering in a more treatment-oriented approach to mental illnesses – especially since depression is considered one of the leading psychological problems ailing Indians. Many cases can be attributed to Indian society’s aversion to talking about the mental health issue. A person can only be helped if she or he reaches out for help, and has the option to do so without judgement or fear of the law.
According to the World Health Organisation, India has one of the largest populations with mental illnesses, and are the worst hit with depression. WHO estimates 36% of all Indians suffer from depression. The latest National Crime Records Bureau statistics show that 79,773 men and 40,715 women have tried to end their lives. As per rounded off figures provided by the NCRB, on an average, 15 suicides an hour or 371 suicides a day had taken place. Young Indians between the age of 15 and 29 make up the world’s largest number of suicides. NCRB data also points out that family problems and illnesses are the leading reasons for depression and suicide.
These numbers are just a third of all suicides in the country. Senior citizens also account for 7.7% of suicides in India. According to the World Health Organisation, over 135,000 people commit or attempt to commit suicide in India every year.
Diseases can make a patient spiral uncontrollably too. While suicidal tendencies are often associated with depression, the act or the thought of it is also common among those who have terminal illnesses. “It is definitely a thought that crosses a terminally ill person’s mind too,” said Dr Raheja, a psychotherapist at the Hope Care clinic. “Many may act upon it or feel tempted to do so. Depression is not the major causes alone. There’s a lot of inter-personal causes including the person feeling alone, lonely, not reaching out for help.”
The new law is therefore a better alternative and takes into account the reality of the psychological issues that are adversely impacting Indians. An important factor in it is that it separates the attempt to suicide from the Indian Penal Code.
Though it has only been two months, doctors are hailing the changes brought in with the Mental Health Act 2017. Dr Raheja said, “This is definitely welcome because at the end of it for somebody who is already plagued with depression or stress, for them or their families to deal with the police too is extremely stupid and ridiculous. How this pans out is to be seen. But… at the end of the day, a human life saved is a human life nurtured.”
* Some names have been changed or shortened to initials on request.