A lot has changed in India since the Covid-19 pandemic. Alongside more than half a million people who died after getting infected by the virus, data show that in 2020 and 2021 combined, 3.17 lakh people died by suicide.
The year 2021 recorded the highest suicide rate (of 12 suicides per 1 lakh population) since the beginning of this century. But experts say a lot of suicides would have gone unreported and that the numbers and suicide rates could have gone up in 2022 as well.
What do the numbers say?
Data about suicides in India are collected by the local police department when they file a first information report. The practice is continued, even after the passing of the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017, that decriminalised suicide attempts. This is then subsequently sent to the National Crime Records Bureau, which releases it as part of its yearly Accidental Deaths & Suicides in India (ADSI) reports.
An analysis of ADSI reports from 2000 to 2021 shows that the number of suicide deaths in India has increased marginally in some years while there has been a decline in other years. This has largely been in line with the rate of population growth in the country. This explains why the suicide rate in the country has ranged between 10 and 11.5 since 2000.
But there has been a jump in suicides during the pandemic. The NCRB recorded 1.5 lakh suicide deaths in 2020, against 1.39 lakh in 2019. Between 2020 and 2021, too, there was a 7.1 per cent increase. In 2021, 1.64 lakh people took their own lives, according to the NCRB.
The suicide rate jumped to 11.3 in 2020 and was at a record high at 12 in 2021. According to the WHO estimates, India has the 41st highest suicide rate globally, as of 2019. Russia ranks 11th, with a suicide rate of 21.6, while it is 14.5 in the US. The WHO estimates say that a few countries that fare well include Barbados (suicide rate of 0.3), Jordan (suicide rate of 2) and Syria, where it is 2.1. China, too, has a comparatively lower suicide rate of six deaths per lakh people.
The jump in the number of suicides in 2020 and 2021, according to mental health experts, is clearly the after-effect of the pandemic and the financial stress that it brought along. “In 2020, during the lockdown, when you had a real financial crisis, the number of suicides, too, shot through the roof,” said Soumitra Pathare, consultant psychiatrist and director at the Centre for Mental Health Law and Policy, Indian Law Society, Pune.
Pathare added that in the event of an economic crisis, a spike in suicides happens after a lag of a few months, but then they persist to increase for the next few years. This is borne out by the increase of 5.9 per cent in the number of suicides in 2010, following the global financial crisis in 2008-2009. The suicide rate was also elevated in the years following the GFC.
“In India and globally, an economic crisis lasts for about six months. But then their after-effects are mostly suicide deaths,” he said.
A study titled ‘What has happened to suicides during the Greek economic crisis?’ published in the US government’s National Library of Medicine also validates this. “The mean suicide rate overall rose by 35 per cent between 2010 and 2012, from 3.37 to 4.56/100,000 population,” it noted. Pathare also pointed out a similar spike in suicide cases in India at the beginning of the 1990s, owing to the economic crisis.
Will the rise in suicide cases also mean that more cases are getting reported, especially after the decriminalising of suicides? Arun B Nair, Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Medical College, Thiruvananthapuram, and Pathare do not think so.
A police source whom we spoke to also confirmed that even prior to 2018, cases were rarely filed under Section 309, which criminalised suicides and that suicide reporting hasn’t improved much in the country.
In 2016, when NCRB noted a suicide rate of 10.3 in India, the World Health Organization estimated that India’s suicide rate was somewhere around 16.5. “There is still a lot of stigma around suicides. In many parts of the country, suicides get reported as accidents. This happens in most cases where people take their lives by consuming poison or by drowning,” said Pathare.
According to the NCRB data, in 2021, 57 per cent of the total suicides occurred by hanging, while 25.1 per cent happened by poison consumption. However, at the beginning of the millennium, a majority of suicide deaths, according to the NCRB, occurred by poisoning.
Pathare said this is because it is difficult to count a death by hanging as an accident, but the same doesn’t apply to poison consumption. Nair said these days, we have been seeing a lot of copycat suicides due to increased digital media exposure. The police source also added that there have been cases where taking their own life by hanging were counted as sudden deaths.
Daily wage labourers and housewives combined, form close to 40 per cent of people who died by suicide in 2021. “The economic crisis hit the daily-wage earners the most. Also, the National Family Health Survey points out that domestic abuse is still a very common thing in India. This could be the reason behind the rise in suicides in these categories,” said Nair.
Pathare, however, said the categorisation here could be flawed. “Many times, a landless female farmer is mentioned as a housewife. The same happens with a female daily wager, too. How is ‘housewife’ a profession?” he asked. The category of daily-wage earners among people who died by suicide was increased by the NCRB only in 2014. Prior to this, they were included in the category of self-employed people.
Nipping in the bud
The data also show that among people who died from suicides all these years, the proportion of people with a college degree has always been less than 5 per cent. It has been increasing in the last few years, probably owing to the financial crisis. “Education and awareness are the only ways out of this menace. People should also be imparted life skills education right from younger ages,” said Nair.
Pathare said better data is the only way out to save so many Indians from taking their lives. “Instead of the NCRB, suicide data collection must be allotted to the National Health Authority or the NFHS. Also, there must be data on suicide attempts. This way, health professionals can intervene and prevent people from taking their lives,” he said.
Those in distress or having suicidal tendencies could seek help and counselling from the links here: