Youth Suicide on the Rise in Modernizing India

By Andrew Macaskill & Tanya Ashreena 11 December 2014

NEW DELHI— Pinki Chauhan, a straight-A physics and maths student, arrived at her university campus in India shortly after breakfast, poured petrol over her wispy frame and lit a match.

The 19-year-old ran screaming across the college grounds in Gurgaon, near the capital New Delhi, before falling to her knees in flames outside the principal’s office. She died a few days later.

Her brother, Arun, said the incident a couple of months ago came after Pinki had been upset after receiving zero marks in an exam, and had been arguing with teachers for her paper to be re-marked.

But Pinki’s problems ran much deeper. Highly ambitious, she was anxious she wouldn’t fulfil her dreams. At the same time she’d been under pressure from some family members to follow a more traditional route—to marry and settle down.

“She didn’t know what else to do,” Arun said. “She put a lot of pressure on herself.”

Pinki’s story is emblematic of problems confronting India’s young, in a society impatient for progress and yet underprepared for the challenges that inevitably accompany modernity.

Cultural issues, discrimination, parental pressure and competition for highly paid jobs are combining to create a suicide epidemic among young Indians. Compounding the problem is a system that barely recognises mental health issues.

India has the world’s highest suicide rate among 15 to 29 year olds, ahead of next-placed North Korea, according to a September report by the World Health Organization. For the first time, suicide is the leading cause of death among young Indian women, overtaking deaths during childbirth, the WHO says.

In most parts of the world suicides tend to occur among the most disadvantaged groups, but in India they are happening among better-educated young adults living in the most prosperous regions.

In south India, where literacy rates and incomes are highest in the country, suicide rates are 10 times higher than in northern states, according to a study published in The Lancet medical journal in 2012.

“Aspirations are at a much higher level and society around them is not always keeping pace, so the disappointment is much greater,” said Vikram Patel, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who carried out the research.

As India’s policymakers strive to put the country on a path to modernity, something akin to China’s transformation of the past two decades, the young are feeling the pressure—in particular, young females.

Unlike the rest of the world, where younger men are more likely to take their lives than women, in India the opposite is the case. Experts put this down to women’s low status in society.

Compounding the issue, little help is at hand for those suffering from mental illness. In India, the condition often goes undiagnosed or untreated, and until a couple of months ago the country did not have national mental health policy. Spending on mental health accounts for 0.06 percent of the government’s health budget, the lowest level in the world after Zimbabwe.

For most Indians with mental illnesses “there is literally no care available”, Harsh Vardan, then-health minister, said in October while announcing plans to build more mental hospitals and train more psychiatrists.

In January, the health ministry launched a nationwide programme to provide community support for adolescents suffering from mental illness.

In the run-up to Chauhan’s suicide, conflict had been building on different fronts. Exam pressure weighed heavily on her mind. There were disputes with her parents. She felt trapped between the competing ideals of old India and new.

She lived in a village on the edge of Gurgaon where the timeless India of wheat fields and cattle-drawn carts abuts the frantically rising apartment towers of the budding middle class.

Chauhan didn’t want to get married as a teenager, the path for most women in her village. In many families, once a woman gets married there is little chance for education and her primary job is to serve her husband’s family.

“She had been arguing with her parents, who wanted her to get married, but she was ambitious, she wanted to prove herself and achieve her dreams,” said her brother, Arun.

When she scored zero on a physics paper she was crushed, fearing it would blemish her job chances. Chauhan, along with other students, pleaded with their teachers for the papers to be reassessed.

Her university, Government Girls College, declined comment when contacted by Reuters, saying the case was under police investigation.

A teacher at the college, who asked not to be identified, said there was a mismatch between student’s expectations and what they were capable of. “We find many students get a shock when they come here because they have been doing well in school and then they don’t get good marks [here].”

Another teacher said that while the college provided counselling to students, the high student-to-teacher ratio meant some people missed the safety net.

Pinki appeared to fall into that category.

Tragically, the college later said that what had pushed her to fatally strike a match was the result of an error. Pinki had in fact passed the exam, and was one of the best students performing in her class.