"I caught him attempting to self-harm"
Suicide is a pressing issue in India, with Punjab being particularly affected by high suicide rates.
The state has witnessed a significant rise in suicide cases since 2010, leading to concerns about mental health and the factors contributing to this alarming trend.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, Punjab consistently has one of the highest suicide rates among Indian states.
In 2019 alone, the state recorded 4,135 suicides, with a staggering suicide rate of 16.3 per 100,000 people.
These numbers highlight the urgent need for a comprehensive understanding of the underlying causes and effective suicide prevention strategies.
Here, we will delve into the reasons behind the prevalence of suicides in Punjab, examine the cultural perceptions surrounding suicide, and explore the efforts being made to address this issue.
Farming & Suicide
The plight of farmers in Punjab and the dire state of agriculture in the region have emerged as leading factors contributing to the alarming rate of suicides.
In a study published by Taki F et al in the Journal of Global Health Reports, it was revealed that Punjab, along with four other Indian states, witnessed the highest number of agricultural suicides between 1998 and 2006.
These distressing statistics underscore the gravity of the issue, particularly in agrarian states like Punjab and Maharashtra.
While there have been some improvements in reducing suicides, the numbers remain concerning.
For instance, industrial states like Tamil Nadu reported zero suicides between 2010 and 2018, whereas Maharashtra and Punjab recorded 6,833 and 649 suicides, respectively, during the same period.
The prevalence of suicides in Punjab from 2008 to 2018 was alarming, with 1,190 suicides among 279,233 medically certified deaths in the population.
It is important to note that these figures are likely an underestimation due to historical under-reporting of suicides, as suicide was considered illegal until 2014.
This lack of accurate reporting and information about individuals’ economic status hampers our ability to draw reliable correlations and effectively analyse the data.
While Punjab may not have the highest suicide rate in India, it experienced a significant surge of 37.5% in 2019, averaging seven suicides per day.
The question remains: why are farmers in particular feeling pushed to such desperate measures?
In the 1970s, India witnessed a revolution in its agriculture industry with the introduction of high-yielding variety (HYV) seeds for crops like wheat, rice, and cotton.
These seeds were hailed as miraculous, promising to boost food production and alleviate the looming threat of famine.
However, these new strains demanded increased amounts of fertilisers, pesticides, and water, putting a strain on farmers.
In Punjab, indigenous crops were completely replaced by these novel seeds, and farmers willingly took on financial burdens to obtain the necessary inputs.
Little did they know that these new strains were more vulnerable to crop failures, susceptible to even the slightest deviations from the ideal conditions that are nearly impossible to guarantee.
This created a recipe for disaster, one that is now unfolding as the climate crisis tightens its grip.
Over five decades since the boom of the 70s, Punjab’s agricultural sector is burdened with a staggering debt of 1 trillion rupees (approximately £10 billion).
This debt is not a matter for the government alone but a heavy burden on farming families.
It is this crushing debt and the accompanying pressure that forms the most formidable factor driving farming suicides in Punjab and other states.
CBC News spoke to Indian women in Punjab who were dealing with the trauma of the men in their families, taking their own lives due to these debts.
One of which was Sukjeet Kaur. In 2005, when Sukjeet and her husband tied the knot, they were already burdened with some debts.
Their misfortune continued when torrential rains in 2006 devastated their rice harvest.
Over the next decade, they accumulated an additional debt of 300,000 rupees (approximately £2,875), primarily spent on purchasing pesticides, fertilisers, and seeds.
This is a significant amount considering that the average monthly income for an agricultural household in the state is roughly £250.
In April 2015, Sukjeet discovered her husband’s lifeless body—a shocking but sadly unsurprising event. She explained:
“There were instances before too.
“He once jumped from the terrace. On another occasion, I caught him attempting to self-harm by cutting his wrist, and my mother-in-law once found him ingesting a bottle of pesticide.
“I made him drink a solution of lemon and salt, and he vomited, saving his life.”
Despite professional help and attempts at helping her husband, the stress resurfaced and he couldn’t cope anymore.
However, Sukjeet’s case is not an isolated incident. Kiran Kaur was also personally affected by farming debt in her family, she explains:
“Cotton is a complete failure for us. The prices are low, and the production costs of the fiber are excessively high.”
This circumstance led her father, Gurnam Singh, to tragically end his life in 2017 on the very same plot of land that had defeated him.
Kiran goes on to express how this event impacted her family:
“Life is still incredibly challenging without him.
“However, that first year after his death nearly destroyed me and my family.
“I abandoned my studies and stayed at home. Everything became a blur. I have no recollection of the 10 days following his passing.”
Shinderpaul Kaur (Kiran’s mother) was aware of the substantial loans her husband had taken to finance their eldest daughter’s wedding and cover Kiran’s medical expenses.
Nevertheless, the idea that her husband would take his own life never crossed her mind:
“I never imagined that the suicide crisis would affect us. Not in my wildest dreams.”
Since then, Sukjeet has been taking medication herself to cope with the stress.
As the sole responsible person in the household, she shoulders the weight of managing the land, the house, her children’s education, and the lingering debt.
A door-to-door survey conducted by Punjab Agricultural University revealed a staggering number of 16,606 agriculture-related suicides in Punjab between 2000 and 2018.
The majority of these tragic incidents occurred in approximately 2,000 villages within the six districts of the Punjab cotton belt.
Despite compelling evidence, the government appears reluctant to acknowledge the scale of the problem.
While some families have received compensation, the recognised number of suicides barely scratches the surface of the issue.
In Ralla village alone, which is situated in Mansa, Punjab, more than 250 families have been affected by at least one suicide in a community of 6,000 people.
However, only 20 of these suicides are officially recognised, and a mere six or seven families have received compensation.
These numbers merely hint at the magnitude of the problem, as the lack of reporting and official records exacerbates the seriousness of the farmer suicide crisis.
Despite being considered one of the most prosperous states in India, Punjab is grappling with alarmingly high suicide rates, particularly among individuals suffering from illnesses.
While the overall suicide rate in the state may be lower than the national average, Punjab ranks first when it comes to suicides attributed to diseases.
According to DownToEarth magazine, in 2021 alone, there were 2600 suicides reported in the state, and a staggering 44.8% of them (1,164) were directly linked to illnesses.
Additionally, the National Crime Records Bureau’s (NCRB) “Accidental Death and Suicides in India, 2021” report claimed:
“Punjab’s rate of suicides due to diseases is approximately 2.5 times higher than the national average of 18.6%.”
This disturbing trend has persisted since 2010, with Punjab topping the list in this category on four separate occasions.
The report also reveals that a total of 30,446 suicides across the country in 2021 were attributed to diseases, accounting for 18.6% of all suicides.
While Punjab leads the pack, other states and union territories also have distressingly high suicide rates due to illnesses:
- Sikkim – 44.7%
- Andaman and Nicobar Islands – 33%
- Andhra Pradesh – 30.6%
- Tamil Nadu – 28.6%
According to the NCRB, mental illnesses and other chronic diseases are the leading causes of suicide.
In 2021, Punjab reported the highest number of suicides due to mental illnesses, accounting for 1095 out of the 1164 suicides attributed to diseases.
Shockingly, this figure included 882 men and 213 women.
Agriculture expert Devinder Sharma attributes the widespread use of pesticides and fertilisers in Punjab to the high prevalence of diseases.
He argues that the chemicals used in cultivation, primarily for wheat production, are making people sick.
Cancer is also alarmingly high in Punjab, and contaminated water, caused by industrial waste polluting the rivers, exacerbates the issue of diseases in the state.
These factors contribute to a vicious cycle where major illnesses in a family result in a 40% increase in debt.
Many individuals find themselves trapped in a cycle of debt and illness, unable to envision a way out, leading to desperate measures like suicide.
The situation in Punjab is deeply concerning, with a clear need for comprehensive measures to address the underlying factors contributing to the high suicide rates among those suffering from illnesses.
Anxiety & Mental Health
According to Dr Ranjive Mahajan, the esteemed Head of the Department of Psychiatry at Dayanand Medical College & Hospital, Covid-19 exacted a heavy toll on the population’s mental health.
In fact, the state has witnessed a significant increase of 20 to 25 percent in reported cases of mental illness during this crisis.
Dr Mahajan underscores that most psychiatric disorders tend to emerge before the age of 25, emphasising the importance of early intervention and treatment, which often yield positive outcomes.
The consequences of the pandemic and the ensuing lockdown measures have had enduring effects on the mental health of various segments of society, including medical professionals, students, teachers, and working individuals.
Dr Mahajan highlights that these groups have borne the brunt of the repercussions, grappling with unprecedented challenges and uncertainties brought about by the crisis.
However, the pandemic is not the only reason leading to stress and suicide. Another main factor relating to mental health, anxiety and suicide is the pressure on students.
India places massive importance on good education. A solid background in academics is related to wealth and status, which many families strive toward in India.
A lot of the elder generation focused more on work and labour, so there is an added pressure they pass down to their kids to get a good education which equates to a better life. But, this isn’t always the case.
Although it’s important to note that another cause of stress-related suicide comes from debt, financial burdens, and health.
Perhaps the most shocking incident was in 2022 at the prestigious Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), which is renowned for its groundbreaking research.
In a distressing series of events that unfolded, a string of suicides cast a somber shadow over the institution.
The distressing incidents began in May 2022 when a 20-year-old bachelor of technology student took her own life in the university hostel.
Just days later, a research fellow also tragically succumbed to suicide in his rented accommodation.
GS Buttar, the Director of Students’ Welfare, assured that the university has implemented a robust system to identify and address suicidal tendencies among students.
Each group of 10 students was assigned an advisor, while wardens and assistant wardens were instructed to closely monitor students’ issues.
Furthermore, weekly meetings were held to address and discuss these concerns.
However, just a couple of months later, a talented 22-year-old entomology master’s student, tragically ended her life by leaping into the Sidhwan Canal.
According to a close friend, the victim had been grappling with depression for several months due to her parents’ failing health and her family’s financial crisis.
Despite these challenges, she managed to secure a scholarship for her BSc studies and excelled in the entrance test for the master’s program.
It was also revealed that the victim had been tutoring students to support herself financially, but this additional responsibility had taken a toll on her own studies.
In fact, she had sought medical help for her anxiety prior to the exams.
When questioned about these tragic incidents, Minister Fauja Singh Sarari, stated that the institution could not solely be held responsible if a student were to take their own life.
Again, a lack of accountability from officials adds to the lack of discussion around suicides in Punjab and India as a whole.
The blame gets passed around which negatively affects the seriousness of suicide cases.
The heart-wrenching suicides at Punjab Agricultural University serve as a poignant reminder of the urgent need to prioritise mental health support within educational institutions.
However, there is also a dire need to address the underlying factors that contribute to the general stress, anxiety, and mental health of Punjab’s communities.
Suicide Prevention: Progress & Obstacles
Taking urgent action to address the pressing issue, a collective force comprising the government, non-profit organisations, and mental health professionals is stepping up efforts to prevent suicides in Punjab.
Here are some noteworthy initiatives that are making a difference:
To offer immediate support and counselling to individuals in distress, suicide prevention helplines like Snehi have emerged as beacons of hope.
These helplines provide a safe and confidential space where people can freely express their emotions and seek guidance without fear of judgment.
The demand for such services is skyrocketing, as evidenced by the staggering 15,000 calls received by the Snehi Helpline in 2020.
Guru Kirpa is another leading organisation that helps those in India with addictions and/or mental health issues.
Whist their focus is on drugs and alcohol addicts, these two aspects contribute to suicide. Therefore, their tremendous work is still improving the lives of as many people as possible.
A wave of public awareness campaigns is sweeping across Punjab, determined to dismantle the stigma surrounding mental health and suicide.
Leveraging the power of social media, television, and community outreach programs, these campaigns aim to enhance mental health literacy and promote a culture of seeking help.
“Tandrust Punjab,” a mental health campaign launched by the Punjab Mental Health Program, stands as a testament to this movement, spreading awareness and eroding the barriers of stigma.
Fortifying Mental Health Infrastructure
The government is leaving no stone unturned in bolstering the mental health infrastructure of Punjab.
Steps are being taken to increase the number of mental health professionals, establish counselling centres, and integrate mental health services into primary healthcare systems.
The Punjab State Mental Health Authority is tirelessly working towards ensuring accessible mental health services throughout the state.
While progress is underway, several challenges impede the effectiveness of suicide prevention in Punjab:
Insufficient Funding Woes
Despite the escalating demand, mental health services often find themselves grappling with inadequate funding.
This limits the reach and impact of suicide prevention initiatives.
A comprehensive solution necessitates increased investment in mental health infrastructure and intensified awareness campaigns.
A report by the Observer Research Foundation revealed that Punjab allocated a mere 0.3% of its overall health budget to mental health in 2019.
Resource and Training Deficiencies
Punjab grapples with a shortage of mental health professionals, particularly in rural areas where the need is often dire.
Expanding training programs for healthcare workers, teachers, and community leaders is imperative to enhance early detection and intervention for individuals at risk.
The Mental Health Task Force report of Punjab highlighted a significant scarcity of psychiatrists and psychologists in the state.
Suicide prevention demands a synchronised, multi-sectoral approach that involves government agencies, healthcare providers, educational institutions, and community leaders.
Effective collaboration among these stakeholders is paramount to the success of prevention programs.
However, challenges in coordination and fragmented service delivery present substantial hurdles on the path to comprehensive suicide prevention in Punjab.
Suicides are a significant problem in Punjab, India, with complex factors and cultural perceptions contributing to the high rates.
While steps have been taken to address this issue, there is a need for sustained investment in multiple areas relating to suicide – both prevention and treatment.
By challenging the stigma surrounding mental health and ensuring accessible support systems, Punjab can foster a society that values mental well-being and provides hope to those in need.
If you or know anyone suffering from suicidal thoughts, reach out for help. You are not alone.
- AASRA (India) – +91-9820466726
- Snehi (India) – +91-01165978181
- ‘KIRAN’ (India) – +91-18005990019
- National Suicide Prevention (UK) – 0800 689 5652
- CALM (UK) – 0800 58 58 58