When my 35-year old uncle—hell-bent on ending his life—crawled under the wheels of a moving train more than four decades ago, Father wondered why his older brother couldn’t be as brave in confronting his delusions, which finally overpowered his will to live. “Some of us knew he wasn’t well, but no one knows if his doctor ever gave him the right medicines or why he didn’t approach a counsellor,” Father says, pointing out that my uncle was diagnosed with neurosis. He left behind a bewildered wife and a two-year-old daughter, and a suicide note that he penned minutes before he was to end his life. The note stated—very simply—that his time on earth had ended.
Born to a family with many siblings, my uncle could never shake off the feeling that he was alone. Unable to deal with his suspicions and fears, he chose death over confiding in others. I enquired about him after I read a news story by Nirupama Dutt (Hindustan Times, 2016) on an anthology titled A Book of Life: When a Loved One has a Different Mind. Edited by Indian author Jerry Pinto, the book has 13 stories shared by writers who have been caregivers of the mentally ill.
Dutt tells us that a common thread in these essays is the long time that families take to identify symptoms of mental illness; some deny it as long as they can for it’s hard for them to believe that someone so close to them is mentally unstable. Dutt’s report cites an essay by journalist Sukant Deepak whose father Swadesh Deepak—an award-winning writer with bi-polar disorder—went missing years back. Writes Sukant Deepak:
Looking back, I hold myself guilty for knowing so little about mental illness that I sat in judgment on him. By the time the disorder was found out in the 1990s, he had become a disgusting and despised figure for everyone—family, friends and relatives.
A 2016 story in Men’s Health by Christa Sgobba, informs us about a new report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which says that suicide rates in America have increased by 24 percent from 1999 to 2014. The report also says that in middle-aged men, the spike is even higher. Suicide rates for men aged 45 to 64 jumped by 43 percent during that time period.
Closer home, the Times of India reported in 2014 that most suicides in the world occur in the South-East Asia Region (39 percent of those in low and middle-income countries in South-East Asia alone) with India accounting for the highest estimated number of suicides overall in 2012. Quoting statistics from Samaritans of Singapore—a suicide prevention agency—a 2015 report in The Straits Times said that seven out of ten people who committed suicide in Singapore in 2014 were men. The SOS also reported that in the past decade, the number of men committing suicide rose by nearly 30 percent while the number of women ending their lives fell by 20 per cent.
That men are likely to keep quiet about their problems while women speak up is seen to be one of the reasons behind more men wanting to commit suicide. Dr. Sanju George, a psychiatrist based in Kochi, Kerala, says that though mental health disorders—such as depression, anxiety and addictions—are common in men, they hesitate to seek help. “Families and friends play a crucial role in helping identify such problems early in their loved ones, and in encouraging them to talk,” says Dr. George. He adds that family support is important for men to heal better. However, as Dutt says, it becomes difficult for people to talk about mental disturbances in their loved ones because of the popular belief that “madness runs in the family”. Dr. George stresses that what is most important is for us to de-stigmatize psychiatry/mental health issues by raising awareness among the general public.
Time to Change—a movement that began in 2007 in the UK—says on its website that since its inception, 3.4 million adults in England have improved attitudes towards mental health. There are more psychiatrists and websites offering guidelines for families to ensure they are capable of recognizing when a loved one should seek professional help. Marked differences in temper or unusual behaviours—like abnormal anxiety or the inability to take care of themselves—are symptoms that signal that a loved one may be slipping into a mental malaise. Urging men to talk about their problems will help identify and prevent worsening of mental conditions that could lead to unspeakable despair. The awareness that help is at hand could help in arming men with the best weapon against mental distress—support.
However, families themselves could come under a great deal of stress because of anxieties that mental illnesses bring. It is important therefore to seek the help of support groups, as parents, partners or children struggle to establish new routines and accept huge upheavals that might seem worrisome initially. It is also good to talk to professional caregivers or even close friends, who might be able to help ease the pressure. Lastly, as difficult as it is, caregivers must also recognize that it is possible for us to lose people despite having done all we could. As Father and his siblings continue to struggle with the hows and whys of my uncle’s death, I know they have done far more than they realize.