PAGE 13: A Life More Ordinary

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By Dr Rachana Patni

India has worrying statistics and ranks high in the number of people who kill themselves using suicide as a method. The highest number is for those aged 15-19, and it is that group of people who may have the most to look forward to in life but critically the group which is under immense pressure to perform. Entrance exams of various kinds are definitely part of the story of deaths by suicide in India. When I used to work as a volunteer with Childline, a free counselling service for children, in the late 1990s, we were made aware of the real figures and the risks for teenagers, and I had found the statistics overwhelming. Things have only become more difficult for Indian teenagers since then, who do not have the capacity to study abroad or in private colleges to pursue their dream vocation. 

With cut-off rates at 100%, the entry to colleges and institutes of repute has become a cut-throat competitive environment. It seems if people cannot cut other’s throats then they are prompted to cut-off their own throats out of a desire to avoid the tag of failure or ‘loser’. This has been a long-term phenomenon in India. It was the case when one needed a minimum of 85% to get into studying for an undergraduate degree and it is the case today when sometimes one needs 100% to get a seat for a course. Competitive exams pose the highest risk because often teenagers sacrifice the rest of their lives to attend expensive and arduous coaching in order to ‘make it all happen’ before their teenage ends, as admission in certain institutions is akin to winning a lottery which has a ticket, a passport, and a marriage card in it, with the map of the entire future laid out clearly.

When things do not go well and students have to deal with failure, it can be a hard hit, with many choosing to end their existence rather than face the pain of having not made it. The fragile sense of self that is based entirely on how one performs in competitive exams becomes the definitive player in many students’ lives. Even when parents do not seem to push their children in any compulsive way, the pressure that is absorbed by the children through the subtext of the competition preparation is toxic and can have terrible consequences. This has been explored in some depth and detail in the film Chhichhore (2019). 

The film has taken on the label of a ‘loser’ and done something interesting with it. It is reminiscent of Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander (1992) but it does not work on the class dynamics as much as purely on how much our performance in competitions determines our view of ourselves, the friends and allies we have access to and, therefore, holds the key to the rest of our lives. This means that young people often sacrifice their capacity to feel anything other than the need for victory, and the salvation that comes with it. Sporting cultures and bullying cultures are all part of this heady mix that creates alienation of young people from commitment to their own wellbeing.

Working in mental health in various countries in the West involves having a preventative approach to suicide, as suicide figures are taken very seriously and each suicide is seen as one that could have been prevented with adequate and timely care or response. There are definitive check-lists that are used with patients in mental health care and also with any new referrals. There are evidence-based studies on the kind of interventions that successfully reduce suicide attempts and all health professionals are given basic training in noticing when to raise an alarm. The licensing of psychologists, counsellors, and others who work in private practice also requires them to forgo their confidentiality agreements with clients in case they seem to have any ideation or plan related to suicide. Despite such elaborate safety nets, several people may attempt and several others may successfully attempt to kill themselves through suicide. Each is treated as a case study to learn from and changes the base-line practice on prevention considerably.

In India, we do not have a systemic approach, but even in the absence of that the message of Chhichhore is that ‘the most important things about life is life itself’. This poignant message is often skipped over when our horizons begin to appear concave. In addition, the film industry and the entertainment industry also subscribe to the norms of toxic competition where appreciation and acknowledgement of talent become larger than life and take over as the only reasons to be alive. The loneliness and isolation that is composite of all highly competitive spheres is perhaps the backbone of this exodus of wonderfully unrealised lives. However, it could well be a mental health problem too, and in India, we are often reluctant to receive timely help in this regard. 

Something’s got to give, and we wish that it isn’t life that loses, and, perhaps, the lesson of Chhichhore is that each one of us has to deeply believe that we are worthy of living our ordinary lives and that ordinary lives are worthy of being lived with love.

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