Every year, when the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) releases statistics on suicide deaths in India, calls to address the issue grow louder. The latest figures for 2021, released on 30 August 2022, show that suicides claimed 1,64,033 lives that year.
Twenty years into the 21st century, suicide deaths remain a major source of social distress and public policy attention in India. Any loss of life is very unfortunate, but the concept of suicide is particularly disturbing and unexplainable to affected families.
One of the reasons for suicide that is prevalent in contemporary discussions is the expanding role of digital technology. The worsening depression and other mental health problems that lead to suicide have been repeatedly attributed to technology. Factors such as cyberbullying, loss of self-esteem due to social media, extreme binge-watching of online content or heavy reliance on virtual followers/communities for verification have all been cited as contributing factors to the problem. It’s clear that the more technology affects the human condition, the more it plays a role in human experience at its best and worst.
However, it helps us to realize that technology is neither the heart of the problem nor the perfect solution to it. Suicide is a reality that society must deal with in the most sensitive and comprehensive way possible. It’s not that technology doesn’t play a role in adverse mental health conditions or related suicide cases; the problem is sensational and misleading analyses of the causes of suicide. This takes the focus away from a comprehensive understanding of the problem and a more appropriate solution.
For example, no one can deny the link between cyberbullying and suicidal thoughts and attempts. According to a study funded by the National Institutes of Health, participants who had experienced cyberbullying were more than four times more likely to report suicidal thoughts and attempted suicide than those who had not experienced cyberbullying. However, similar results were true even for those who were bullied in person. The conclusion is that the medium of bullying is not the only culprit; it is the act of bullying itself that needs to be addressed. Awareness campaigns, advocacy programs, community support and counselling services are often considered good solutions to combating online or other bullying.
The case of Tamil Nadu
News reports on a spate of suicides, especially in Tamil Nadu, illustrate this point. Preliminary news reports have linked several suicides to gaming addiction, particularly online rummy games. The reports sparked a strong political reaction from the Tamil Nadu government in the form of a decree banning most online games for money, including rummy and poker. Upon closer inspection, multiple independent studies, such as one from the Rotary Rainbow Project, found that reports of suicide deaths in the state linked to online rummy games were highly exaggerated.
The real cause of these deaths is different from what was previously reported. In addition, experts who study suicide, including Sandip Shah, a psychology professor at Shri Govind Guru University in Gujarat, told the Tamil Nadu government directly that there is insufficient data on the correlation between suicide and online gaming.
An NCRB analysis of data on suicide deaths in Tamil Nadu suggests the policy response is insufficient to address the magnitude of the state’s crisis. Tamil Nadu has consistently had one of the highest reported suicide deaths in the country, with more than 11% of total reported cases for most of the past decade, with nearly 19,000 cases in 2021 alone.
According to the NCRB, family issues, illness, substance abuse and marriage/love-related issues alone account for more than two-thirds of suicide deaths in India. It is therefore the responsibility of the Tamil Nadu government to address these root causes and develop an overall policy response to minimise future cases. Compared to top-down policymaking that focuses on a few high-profile events, an inclusive community-based approach to mental health and suicide prevention may prove more effective in saving lives. In addition, states may consider how technical measures by service providers may also be part of this policy response.
use of technology
As far as the central government is concerned, it is already embracing the potential role of technology in improving citizens’ mental health outcomes. In February, it announced the National Telemental Health Initiative to provide free, 24/7 mental health interventions in remote and underserved areas. Acknowledging suicidal thoughts and attempting to address a range of interconnected causal relationships is necessary to design effective and proportionate policy prescriptions. While technology is undoubtedly an agent of this complex matrix, it can neither be seen as a root cause nor as a panacea.
Dhruv Garg and Dedipyaman Shukla are independent lawyers in Delhi with an interest in technology, law and policy