Most people aren’t fond of discussing suicide. Either the issue is dismissed because it hurts public sentiments or those affected most by it are looked with contempt and horror. In-between the hesitant sympathy and the outright apathy that is generally displayed, most have thought that suicide is something irrational, immoral, or both. This belief is strengthened since governments in many countries have criminalised it. When something is attacked by authoritative institutions like rationality, morality, society and legality, it will be perceived negatively by the majority obviously.
Psychology of Suicide
In spite of this attitude, suicide undoubtedly requires significant attention, both from experts and public. Psychology Today writer Alex Lickerman mentions six common reasons why people commit suicide.[i]
- They’re depressed.
- They’re psychotic.
- They’re impulsive.
- They’re crying out for help.
- They’ve a philosophical reason to die.
- They’ve made a mistake.
Social and legal issues about suicide are descriptive evaluations. In contrast, rationality and morality are normative in nature. Their questions require answering what ought to be done.
Philosophy of Suicide
There are people who passionately believe that suicide is always irrational and immoral. Most would reject such an absolutist view, sensibly in my view. There are imaginable cases where the amount of pain and bad experiences overwhelm the pleasure and good experiences in life. Yet, some are quick to point out that even if the painful events in one’s life exceed the pleasurable ones, it still doesn’t make the action rational. This is because life is valuable intrinsically regardless of the badness. Thus, for people with this rationale, experiencing such events never justifies committing suicide. However, people go through experiences in war, abuse, psychological trauma, etc. that challenge such notions about the irreducibility of life’s value.
Another point philosopher Shelly Kagan makes,
“… [W]e don’t have a crystal ball, and so in deciding whether to kill yourself…you are…gambling. But gambling…is something we do all the time. The necessity of making decisions in the face of uncertainty is simply one of the facts of life.”[ii]
Even if people don’t have conclusive evidence about their judgment in such times, it seems unusual to let them suffer for some theoretically possible chance of their conditions improving. Most of our decisions are based upon our calculations; if the individual believes that such calculations are correct in this case, too, there should be at least some reluctance before opposing it. Yet another reason why this is important is because we consider each one of us autonomous rational agents who should have the freedom to decide their life courses. This also means letting them have the ability to decide in cases where they want to end it.
For many, the fact that people end their gifts of lives is too hard to swallow. They think gods, nature, parents, families have devoted themselves to allow you to grow and enjoy this life and thus it is ungrateful to commit suicide, giving them unimaginable pain. This, though, seems a stretch. It might be true that life is a gift. But gift once spoilt (forever) is of no use or joy. Kagan asks in his book, wouldn’t only a bully want you to keep something spoilt?
Most cases in which suicide is chosen as the only alternative are not rationally justified. Failing a test, breaking up with a girlfriend, losing a job are things motivating people toward suicide, but obviously are circumstances that can be overcome, with help from professional counsellors and loved ones. The biggest problem for suicides is that no one talks about them.
Psychiatry of Suicide and Normative Suggestions
In an article in Industrial Psychiatry Journal of India, titled, ‘De-criminalization of attempted suicide in India: A review’[iii], the authors argue,
“Decriminalisation will reduce the trauma and potential prosecution in the aftermath of a suicidal attempt. However, there is a need to improve the mental health coverage and provide a framework to deliver essential mental health services to all those who attempted suicide.”
These psychiatrists suggest that the response to suicides in India, and wherever criminalised, should change from “legal” to “medical”. Not only will it help the family of suicide attempters to cope with the situation, but it is indisputably beneficial for the attempters as well.
Clarifying the Issue
The previous justification of suicide in certain cases doesn’t endorse suicide by any means. But such reasoning might lend support to the idea that criminalising suicide attempts sometimes gives more suffering to those already in grief. This is not to say that we should be normalised to suicide; we don’t have to start thinking it a part of our social reality. But what’s important is judging each case individually since the reasons for suicide differ among people, and the conditions in which they are acted upon can transcend the purview of our legal system.
One can question why an explanation of suicide is necessary. The reason is that suicides, even though not an accepted tragedy, happen far too often to ignore. The only time most people become alert about it is when someone close to them or some celebrity commits suicide. World Health Organization estimates that approximately 170,000 die due to suicide in India.[iv] It is crucial to remember that making things taboo consciously or allowing them to remain so is counterproductive in helping those in need, especially in cases of suicide attempters.
Legality of Suicide
In India, Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) stated: “Whoever attempts to commit suicide and does any act towards the commission of such offence, shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year or with fine or both.” The Supreme Court in 2011 advised the Parliament to reflect on the viability of deleting the section criminalising suicide from the statute. On 24 February 2015, the Minister of State in the Ministry of Home Affairs, Haribhai Parathibhai Chaudhary, said that a proposal to delete Section 309 from the Indian Penal Code had been sent to the Legislative Department of the Ministry of Law and Justice for drawing up a draft Amendment Bill. Indian government introduced Mental Healthcare Bill which was passed in the Rajya Sabha on August 8, 2016. This is a positive move and a much-required reform. As abovementioned psychiatrists note, however, there’s a long way to go before we get a victim-friendly model of aid.
[ii] Shelly Kagan, Death (The Open Yale Courses Series), (2012), Yale University Press.
[iii] Rajeev Ranjan, Saurabh Kumar, Raman Deep Pattanayak, Anju Dhawan, and Rajesh Sagar, “(De-) criminalization of attempted suicide in India: A review”, (2014), Industrial Psychiatry Journal.
[iv] Anil Rane and Abhijit Nadkarni, “Suicide in India: a systematic review”, (2014), Shanghai Archives of Psychiatry
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