By Rajashree Ghosh
It is disconcerting to learn that the incidence of suicide among South Asian immigrants in the US are high. Based on a study conducted by Boston University, among immigrants living in the US, suicide rates of young women from the Indian subcontinent are consistently higher than those of their male counterparts.
Suicide rates among older men in this immigrant group have been reported to be low, although reports are less consistent. Use of violent methods such as hanging, burning, and poisoning is common among both men and women.
A disproportionately higher number of immigrant Hindus commit suicide. Family conflict appears to be a precipitating factor in many suicides, whereas mental illness is rarely cited as a cause. Depression, anxiety, and domestic violence may contribute to the high rates.
Losing a near one because of natural causes is devastating in itself and losing someone because of suicide is profoundly more tragic. When public personalities commit suicide, it makes for a lot of noise with corresponding messages on how this was not the right thing to do and how it could have been prevented.
It seems like the loss is never well explained because so many questions remain unresolved and what stays with the bereaved is what should “not” have happened. The stigma of being related to a person who committed suicide is palpable.
Anthony Bourdain’s passing was one such example from the recent times. He had a certain effervescence and a bright mind that brought into our homes journeys, world cuisine and people. How many of us wished we lived his life! Eating in different countries, experiencing varied cultures, and deconstructing culinary practices, through his own immersive relationships in the places he traveled.
I remember the episodes in Kerala and the Punjab. How he managed to chow down on street food in “dhabas” and reveled in the “colors” of India! He embraced vegetarian options in India as much as he relished what he called the “muscle and funk” of meat in other countries. Even though we, the audience became ardent fans of his approach and his public persona we know now that there were “parts” of him that were “unknown” to us. There was evidently loneliness – much of which we as his fans and audience fail to understand and recognize.
This event and those of losing other public personalities to suicide has again sparked conversations on mental health and loneliness. Researchers have found evidence that links loneliness to physical illness and to functional and cognitive decline. It is and has been a serious public health issue deserving of public funds and national attention.
In the U.K. public, private and volunteer sectors are mobilizing to address loneliness. This includes the appointment of a Loneliness Minister. As an unprecedented move, it was met with a wee bit of ridicule here in the U.S. There has been an undeniable and intense curiosity on this side of the pond about the royal family and royal weddings, and there has been much said about the British stiff upper lip, and the severe deficiency in expression of emotions. How would they even know what loneliness is given that there is no overt indication?
Despite significant differences in approach, the two countries – US and UK – share key facts other than some shared history. In both countries, roughly one in three people older than 65 live alone, and in the United States, half of those older than 85 live alone. Studies in both countries show the prevalence of loneliness among people older than 60 ranging from 10 percent to 46 percent. Within the US in 2016, almost 45,000 people died by suicide in the US, indicating a staggering rise in the cause of death. It is widespread across the country, impacting every single age group and demographic in America.
While researchers are deepening their understanding, public health interventions need to take into account multiple reasons, contexts and conditions in which suicides occur. Instead of independent and disparate efforts, prevention has to be guided by an integrated and multipronged approach.
The passing of Bourdain needs to be about his life but also his struggles. While we are glued to social media and the projected image of a person we know nothing about the challenges he faced. In fact, while CNN was reeling from the news of his passing one of the questions asked was “when was his last post on Twitter?” and the response was a few days before he took his own life. It is a misnomer that what is shared on social media is accurate. And likewise, a post does not indicate all is well.
The hyperbolic rise of social media as a method of communication has resulted in a lot of chatter online. With its wide reach and instant gratification, it allows people to assume personas. It is these projections that result in superficial conversations – a far cry from engaged, face to face interactions.
Perhaps cyber interactions allow for escaping from stigma of seeking help or talking to someone. The power of human and one on one conversation and the role it can play in saving lives needs to be brought back. Johnny Nash’s song “I can see clearly now, the rain is gone,…. It’s gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright) Sun-Shiny day…” provides an optimism that challenges can be overcome and that life and living can be restored.
(Rajashree Ghosh, Resident Scholar, Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University.)