Does poverty or debt cause suicide?

For months, the media have been replete with reports of suicides of farmers in Andhra Pradesh, and now in Maharashtra too. The unstated assumption is that suicide hardly occurs unless caused by acute financial distress.

Not so. Suicide is frighteningly common, and little related to financial distress. The global suicide rate is 14.5 per lakh persons (source:WHO). For India’s population, this translates into 145,00 suicides per year.

However, India suffers from gross under-reporting of suicides, which are technically crimes. In 2000, the National Crime Records Bureau recorded 108,597 suicides. This implies 300 suicides per day, or one every five minutes.

Human rights groups, Opposition politicians are quick to blame government negligence. NGOs opposed to pesticides or commercial crops will claim that these have caused farm suicides.

Such self-serving analyses fail to explain why suicide rates are rising globally, regardless of which party rules, of wealth or poverty, of high or low welfare benefits.

Suicide is related to illness, old age, teenage stress, family problems, and a host of minor causes. Financial stress comes rather low in the list. Globally, suicide is thrice as common in people above 60 as in the 15-29 age group.

Surprisingly, there is no correlation between income and suicide, in India or globally. In India, Pondicherry (50.85/lakh) has the highest rate of suicide.

Among major states, the highest rates are in Kerala (28.76/lakh), Karnataka (23.66/lakh), West Bengal (17.46/lakh) and Tamil Nadu (17.72/lakh).

Egalitarianism and welfare in Kerala do not check suicide.

Globally, the highest suicide rates are found in the Baltic zone — Lithuania (51.6/lakh), Russia (43.1/lakh), Belarus (41.5/lakh) and Estonia (37.9/lakh).

Rates are high in rich countries like Finland (28/lakh) and Austria (20/lakh), and in a Marxist welfare state like Cuba (23/lakh). The US comes in at 13.9/lakh.

Third world rates are generally low, probably because of under-recording, especially in Muslim countries that view suicide as sin. Globally, thrice as many males as females commit suicide although females are poorer and more oppressed.

In the US, whites have much higher suicide rates than blacks. Teenage suicide rates are spiralling in the US despite rising incomes. There is no obvious link between suicide and poverty or oppression.

A recent study by Anuradha Bose in The Lancet found that the suicide rate among Tamil girls aged 15-19 years was 146/lakh, ten times the global average.

Teenage stress can cause many more suicides than financial stress. Indian records attribute only 5 per cent of suicides to poverty, bankruptcy and sudden fall in economic status. Family reasons and ill health are the main causes.

The global picture suggests that the main cause of suicide is internal, not external. It relates mainly to the psychological and genetic make-up of individuals (manic depressives are very suicidal).

This helps explain why suicide rates seem impervious to economic and social conditions. It also provides a cultural explanation for high-suicide areas like the Baltic zone and low-suicide areas like Muslim countries.

No doubt external stresses like drought and debt can tip depressed individuals over the brink.

But the data do not suggest that this greatly increases suicide rates. When millions of farmers face the same problems, only a few kill themselves, and these would be prone to do so even in better economic conditions.

Finally, a non-obvious cause of suicide is media publicity. During the spate of college-student suicides in the anti-Mandal agitation of 1990, Prof Dinesh Mohan published an article showing how media reportage itself encouraged copy-cat suicides.

A 1986 study in the US showed that teen-age suicides increased 7 per cent following nationally televised suicide stories. Thus, the media not only discover but also create suicide waves.

The culprits include, alas, this column. I feel a professional duty to discuss this issue. Yet this may push suicidal people over the brink.

What do you think?