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B. K. Karanjia

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An Act of Cowardice?

en with the so-called killer instinct are more prone to kill themselves than other men. This is the astounding truth discovered by the World  Health Organisation that the death toll from homicide and war is far exceeded by that from suicides, with almost 20 million people attempting and one million succeeding every year. More men than women take their own lives, but a greater number of women than men attempt suicide and, recently, there has been an alarming increase in suicidal behaviour among young people aged between 15 and 25. "Worldwide, more people die from suicide than from homicides and wars combined," writes the WHO Assistant Director, Chatherine Le Gales-Camus. "There is an urgent need for coordinated and intensified global action to prevent this needless toll".

No doubt global action has to be taken, but for such action to be successful needs a deeper understanding of the motivations of those who commit suicide. Suicide is too often dismissed as an act of cowardice. The great French thinker Voltaire said sarcastically that "so many cut their own throats in this best of all possible worlds". Even Shakespeare wrote of it as "a prohibition so divine, that cravens my weak hand." Dryden went to the extreme of deriding suicide as "the effect of cowardice in the highest extreme".

Such lack of sensitivity, in poets of all people, is surprising. Consider, for example, the motivation of the great writer Ernest Hemingway. At the height of his writing career, realising the futility of fame, he shot himself in the head. A young beauty queen, Nafisa Joseph, hung herself because of her disillusionment with love. Farmers in India in their hundreds kill themselves in the final abandonment of all hope.

Consider also the long-drawn-out preparation processes leading to the final act. It must call not only for a pitch of desperation but also for great courage to take a revolver, hold it to your head and press the trigger to blow your brains out; or to select a thick rope, twist it into a noose and put it round your neck and jump into emptiness; or to jump from a high-rise building or in front of a speeding train or, most horrendous of all, to consume rat poison.

In a life and death issue like suicide, one cannot afford to be judgemental. It is surely adding grave insult to deadly injury by referring to farmers who commit suicide as cowards, when there is no other resort available to them for complex reasons of which the most obvious of course is the indifference of the State. The WHO report also gives a large number of complex, underlying causes for suicide, including poverty, unemployment, loss of loved ones, arguments, breakdowns in relationships, legal or work-related problems, and loneliness, above all, loneliness.

In a bid to raise awareness on this issue, the International Association for Suicide Prevention observes an annual suicide prevention day. In this issue in an article entitled "Nobody Loves Me?Nobody Cares," an Indian psychologist places suicide in the Indian context, particularly with reference to the large number of suicides by young men and women for failure in examinations, and makes several wise suggestions to tackle the problem at its source by helping avert suicidal tendencies in childhood and early youth.


B.K. Karanjia