Kolkata: On 1 May, a postgraduate trainee attached to the fever clinic of the government-owned RG Kar Medical College and Hospital in Kolkata had jumped to her death from the nine-storied building where Covid-19 patients were being screened.
The 28-year-old woman was a second-year student of paediatrics at the medical college. No suicide note was found and no cause could not be ascertained. The incident shocked many, including the psychiatrists.
Just over a month later, on 9 June, four people, including a 10-year-old, committed suicide in the city. Three of them consumed poison while the child hanged herself. Days later, on 14 June, five suicides were reported by the Kolkata Police. The victims included a 38-year-old, two senior citizens, and two middle-aged people. All five had hanged themselves. It was the same day Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput had hanged himself.
In the same week, on June 17, there were seven suicides reported across Kolkata. The victims included a 10-year-old, two 19-year-olds and a 30-year-old. This week, three people committed suicide, including a police constable who shot himself on Friday. Thirty four-year-old Biswajit Karak, who was posted at Writer’s Building, was on medication, police said.
There is nothing that connects all these cases except for the fact that they were “fighting helplessness and uncertainty”, said a senior Kolkata Police officer, who noted that this has become a prevailing condition since the Covid-19 pandemic struck, bringing with it months long lockdowns and economic misery.
According to the officer, a suicide note is rarely recovered and the deaths are generally marked “unnatural death” (UD) in police records.
Based on the latest police data, Kolkata has seen an alarming 100 per cent increase in the number of suicides after lockdown was imposed.
Police officers said the increase in cases were linked to the economic distress caused by the lockdown, but reasons in many of the cases could not be determined.
Doctors say limited access to mental healthcare has made it tougher for them or the patients to reach out, and reports like the death of Sushant Singh Rajput make reality seem more bleak to people in depression.
Police boost ‘DIAL 100’ services to address rising cases
The instances mentioned above are among the 92 suicide cases that the ‘City of Joy’ has witnessed in May and June. June alone accounts for around 72 cases, show incident reports and records with the Kolkata Police.
Apart from these, city police personnel saved at least 12 people after they were alerted about suicide attempts through social media posts and calls from friends and family.
According to police records, between April and June, at least 113 cases of suicides were reported, more than double the 2019 reported numbers. There were 55 cases reported for the same period in 2019, and 49 in 2018.
The senior police official said that around 10-15 per cent of such cases are directly linked to financial distress caused by the lockdown, but reasons for the others could not be ascertained. The city police has also upgraded its DIAL 100 assistance with more workforce being deputed to attend to distress calls.
Kolkata Police Commissioner Anuj Sharma told The Print, “We are reaching out to NGOs and psychologists who have expertise in this field to help us work out a system of stress-venting by such a person. In the meantime, we are available 24×7 on DIAL 100 to assist anyone who is in distress.”
Even though there is no cause analysis or profiling of the victims available, psychiatrists ThePrint spoke to attribute this unnatural spike to the absence of professional help, unaddressed depression, adjustment disorder during Covid pandemic and the subsequent lockdown situation.
Suicide driven by impulse, especially among the young
Doctors feel the lockdown has made it difficult for people to reach out to counsellors. The pandemic has also brought in a “fear of an uncertain future” that is driving people towards such drastic steps. However, the fear of contracting the virus cannot be pin-pointed as an exact cause, said senior psychiatrist Subir Hajra Chaudhuri, who works with the Institute of Psychiatry.
“There is a huge rise in suicide attempt cases too. There is a spike in patients who feel suicidal and look for professional assistance. The cases of suicides, of course, shot up due to loneliness and stress disorder, people’s incapability of adjusting in a particular situation that is adverse,” said Chaudhuri.
He added that some patients with chronic depression who had been improving relapsed during these four months since the lockdown limited access to mental healthcare.
An analysis of police data of the last three months reveals that the number of cases took a three-fold jump in June.
Most victims belonged to the urban middle-class or upper middle-class. Age profiles indicated that among those who died during the May-June period, at least 26 were under 30 years, around 32 were in the age group of 30-40 years and three were under 12 years.
“Suicides should not have happened this way as people are staying at home and with families, but the statistics state otherwise. At times, this is driven by impulse. In some cases, people are dying without help. As far as the adolescent or teen suicides are concerned, these are also impulse-driven,” Chaudhuri said.
A sense of hopelessness among people is a major concern, said Paromita Roy, associate professor of psychiatry at PG Hospital and Medical College in Kolkata.
“We are getting at least five to six cases of attempts daily, which is alarming and a matter of serious concern. Several of them are just hopeless about their lives, uncertain about their future. The mode of suicides have also changed,” Roy said.
Since June 14, the day actor Sushant Singh Rajput died, there were at least 44 cases of suicides reported in Kolkata.
“We always say that the media should report the death of a Bollywood actor responsibly and it should not be highlighted. Continuous reportage and recurring commentary about a celebrity suicide make many vulnerable. Some, who think it was not a right thing to do, suddenly become more depressed, leading to extreme steps. The media should minimise such reporting for the sake of people’s mental health,” said Roy.
To mitigate the situation, doctors said that they are trying to reach out to patients via telephone sessions, but that pales in comparison to an actual session.
“There are some patients who need constant support and surveillance. They were badly affected. Even though we tried to talk to them over the phone, counsel them through words, but this telephonic arrangement does not really work for them,” said Chaudhuri.
“It is not like a normal disease in which one can prescribe a paracetamol or a cough syrup. This has also made things a bit critical. In many cases, depression just happens,” he said.