Teen suicide epidemic reflected in mother's grief

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 May, 2008, 12:00am

When Rachna Gupta went shopping last month at a mall in Noida, just outside the Indian capital, she dropped her 15-year-old son off at his maths tutor's house.

While she checked out plasma TVs, her son, Dhruv, pretended to feel unwell, excused himself from the tutorial and walked home. After packing the maid off on an errand, Dhruv, now alone in the house, took one of his mother's saris out of the wardrobe and hanged himself from the ceiling fan.

In his suicide note, he apologised to his parents, but said that he knew he had done badly in his exams and preferred to 'disappear' rather than disappoint them.

'I blame myself for not realising how he was feeling,' Mrs Gupta said. 'He had been a bit quiet, but I thought he was tense about the exams. I didn't know he was suffering so much in his mind.'

Since her son's death, Mrs Gupta has become more attuned to newspaper stories about teenage suicides.

The epidemic seems to be caused by children's fear of failing to live up to their parents' and society's expectations.

Figures released by the National Crime Records Bureau show that in 2006, the last year for which figures are available, 16 teenagers killed themselves every day.

More Indian adolescents die of suicide than of Aids, cancer, lung disease, heart disease or birth defects.

In some regions of the country, such as Tamil Nadu in the south, it is the leading cause of teen deaths, particularly among girls.

Students in India are awaiting their exam results. School leavers know that without top marks - in the 95-98 per cent range - they can not get one of the best university places.

St Stephen's, a top Christian university in the capital, has a cut-off mark of 98 per cent for anyone who wants to study economics - a hugely popular subject.

The competition is fierce, as the number of university places has not increased substantially to meet the demands of a booming population. Hundreds of thousands of boys and girls compete for a few thousand places.

The tutoring business is thriving. Hardly any child of educated, middle-class parents escapes having one or more tutors. It is deemed the only way to keep a child on track.

During exams, a family's social life comes to a standstill as everyone focuses on the child. Visitors are told to stay away and going out for a movie or dinner is out of the question.

Families and students know that a good university means a good career.

'Without a prestigious name on your CV, you'll never get a job with a good company because the competition for jobs is even worse,' commerce student Rishi Anand said.

For weeks newspapers have been full of reports of teenagers hanging themselves, throwing themselves in front of trains or swallowing pesticide.

Experts may argue over why teenagers succumb to despair, but the figures are undisputed. The 2006 figure of 5,857 suicides was up from 5,138 in 2005 and 5,054 in 2004. The real figures are probably much higher as many families are too ashamed to report the death as suicide.

Indian society measures success by exam results, salaries and job titles. As a result, teenagers rarely do a gap year to travel, see the world or work with NGOs.

'People think you're mad if you want to take a year out,' said Anil Aggarwal, a former management consultant.

'It means being a step below others on the career ladder. So, all students do is cram. They possess bookish knowledge but they don't have rounded personalities.'

Mr Aggarwal has recruited top Indian graduates and said he finds them 'one-dimensional' compared with Americans or Europeans.

Psychiatrists blame parents and society's narrow definition of success.

'Teenagers are very vulnerable,' said D. Radhakrishan, a consultant psychiatrist at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences in Bangalore.

'They are going through massive emotional upheavals and can be impulsive and moody. This pressure to do well in exams can tip the scales.'

Unnatural deaths

Suicides among teenagers in India, especially during exam periods, is a growing concern

The average daily number of teens who took their own lives in 2006 was: 16