The suicide of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput met with wide-ranging responses on social and mainstream media. From lists of helplines and reassurances of companionship in times of crises being shared to acknowledgements over how one should say that a person did not commit but die of suicide, a massive public conversation over suicide was stirred. Several weeks later, it might be a decent idea to assess how we grapple with events like these, and how societal normalcy itself might need to be implicated.
Most aforementioned responses, arguably, invested in the go-to closed narratives on a phenomenon that requires an open-ended and self-critical conversation. The reportage by mainstream media received acknowledgement for its insensitivity. But other relatively uncriticised responses to suicides and suicidality might also be worth addressing in light of their reinstatement of not just an elitist, exclusionary imagination of mental health but also a disregard for particularity while imposing ready biomedical explanations on phenomena that have both sociopolitical causality and personal specificity. In other words, most responses to a phenomenon that shakes the social order up, obfuscate how someone taking their life might stem from the same order and its vocabularies of medical and communitarian care.
Declarations by individuals on social media about reaching out to them during a crisis might be well-intentioned but they tide over the fact that these consistent reiterations have not amounted to anything more than platitudes. In the availability of these options, they remain inaccessible, even to the most privileged, thanks to the lack of an everyday applicability of such generosity. Such acts tend to be reduced to ritualistic exercises because care, in the conventional sense of the term, remains socially unfair to the suffering. Purported ‘safe’ spaces remain elusive because when one invests in a binary of the suffering and the non-suffering and creates an impossible stairway to ‘normalcy’, a struggling person is less likely to feel safe in the company of a privileged ‘normal’ person.
Suicide has social causality and so do mental health issues, but every instance of the two also has specificity. Thus, it is necessary to not compulsorily medicalise suicide, and acknowledge that life is an unhoming experience for several individuals due to their particular social and political locations, as well as private histories. The consistent insistence on wanting to live and not die heedlessly glorifies the everyday order of life and posits the desire to die as ‘abnormal’, which appropriates and imposes a convenient template on a personal narrative, reductively conflating mental illness with suicidality. Thus, even saying that someone “died of suicide” might be problematized because it makes the desire to die seem like a compulsory outcome of mental health problems and takes attention away from what might make someone end their life in the absence of medically diagnosable conditions.
Jesse Bering, a psychologist, critiques a strict biomedical reading of suicide as well as the cultural responses to it in a 2019 article in the American online magazine Slate:
“This tends to be the prevailing narrative around suicide and suicidality—a message cloaked in a constant admonishment to ‘just reach out for help’ if you are feeling this way, and someone will try to see you through to the other side. The problem with this, though, is the obvious reality that some problems really are permanent, thank you very much. We may, with the right therapy or psychopharmacological help, change our perspective of such problems so that they don’t cause us so much ongoing distress. But not all problems fade with time; some actually do get worse. It should not be irrational to acknowledge this existential fact, and yet it remains stubbornly difficult to talk about.”
In addition to this, discussions around mental health universalize a privileged caste-class location as the public sphere continues to invisiblize and exclude insecure social existences. While some instances of suicide are made spectacular and problematically attributed only to biomedical causality, instances of farmers’ suicides, the mental health of persecuted communities and the institutional murders of people who die of suicide at the hands of a fundamentally exclusionary, marginalising and sadistic socio-political normalcy remain unacknowledged even when conversations around suicide and mental health proliferate.
Lastly, reductive and performative social media gestures do not suffice when the available channels of help are kept outside consistent appraisal and criticism. Apart from behavioural changes in the everyday one inhabits to make the ‘safe’ space safe enough for people to be vulnerable, suicide prevention helplines need to be assessed and their efficacy and working has to be ensured through a public conversation on the same. Similarly, the capitalist appropriation of mental healthcare and the quality and ‘safe’-ness of therapy merit discussions and assessments as well.
On the whole, one arguably needs to move beyond the status-quoist, limited, oversimplified conversations on the human condition and what threatens its stability. Human life should not acquire a short-lived, superficial public significance in the face of a spectacle of its disruption, and responding to it might need substantial discussions that let one’s understanding of the same not stagnate but factor in the heterogeneity of human experience under the upheld order of life.
By Abhinav Bhardwaj (Guest Writer)
Abhinav Bhardwaj is a published poet and researcher, has been a longlist awardee of the Wingword Poetry Prize and his works have been published by portals and journals like Feminism In India and Contemporary Literary Review India. He completed his undergraduate studies in English Literature from Hindu College, University of Delhi, earlier this year.