MY FIRST-HAND EXPERIENCE LEARNING ABOUT THE STIGMA ATTACHED TO DEPRESSION AND SUICIDE
Trigger Warning: This article is about suicide.
Many years ago, one day in September when I was studying in 9th standard, my mom came to pick me up from school in the car as always. On this day, I noticed that my mom was particularly quiet and her eyes were trained on the road in a way that seemed forced. We had barely taken the first turn to get onto the main road when my mother told me,
’Kavya was in an accident.’
I wasn’t sure what she was talking about.
‘Kavya?’: I asked. ‘Which Kavya?’
My mother did not say anything.
‘Our cousin, Kavya?’ I asked incredulously. Her silence was answer enough. I asked her what happened to Kavya.
‘Something about a bus accident,’ she told me. I asked her to elaborate. She said we’d talk once we reached home.
My cousin and I were not very close. She had lived in Canada all her life. Her family would come to India once every five years. When we spent time together, it was always fun, but once they’d leave for Canada again, we’d lose touch. At this point, it had been three years since Kavya had last come to India. I’d barely thought about her in a long time then.
When we finally reached home, my mother revealed that she had lied to me. She told me Kavya had, in fact, passed away. I was too stunned, too confused to make sense of her words. I watched my father break down in front of me as he told us that his niece had passed away. At this point I was still under the assumption that she was involved in a bus crash. I silently wondered how many others had been hurt or lost. I do not recall who it was that finally told me the truth.
There was no bus crash. Kavya had taken her own life.
To say I was in shock is an understatement. My family was around me, sobbing and grieving. I had never lost someone close to me before. My grandfather died when I was very young, but I didn’t really know him so it never felt like a loss. This was my first time losing someone. But I still felt… nothing. In that moment, the only sentiment I felt was guilt at my own lack of tears. I forced myself to cry just to feel like a part of the mourning.
Eventually, I changed out of my school uniform, sat in my room at my study table and opened my laptop. I still didn’t know what to make of these new circumstances, didn’t know what to do with myself, so I did what I’d do on any other day. I opened my laptop and logged onto Facebook. I typed in my cousin’s name and clicked onto her profile. I did not remember the last time I had seen her online or the last time we had messaged. Now, her profile sat without a picture- just the default female silhouette. I scrolled down her page. There they were- people posting on her page, remembering her, grieving her, wondering about her. They kept pouring in, these messages of condolences.
That’s when the truth finally began to sink in. I had truly lost someone forever. She had killed herself. She ceased to exist anymore.
Those were the first genuine tears of grief I cried that day.
We decided to go to Canada to attend my cousin’s funeral. But until our visas could be approved and tickets could be booked, I was to go to school. Before I left for school, here’s what my mother told me-
‘Do not tell anyone that your cousin committed suicide.’
I wasn’t sure why she said that. ‘But I have to ask my teacher for a leave for when we go to Canada.’
‘Tell them what I told you. Tell them it was a bus accident.’
My parents then developed a story together that my sister and I were to tell anyone who asked. Kavya was waiting at the bus stop. There was ice on the road. The bus lost control. That’s it.
My sister and I repeated this tale to anyone who’d ask. I lied to my teachers when I asked for a two-week leave. I lied to my friends when they asked me why I was so sad. If they questioned further, we said we didn’t know the whole situation. They’d let it slide then.
At this time, I was almost 15 years of age. I understood death, and I understood suicide. As far as I was concerned, people committed suicide all the time. I’d heard my parents talk about the cowardice or the selfishness of people who committed suicide, and I never thought twice about it because it was never a reality for me. On that day, however, it became a part of my reality. I still didn’t know what to think.
Once we got to Canada, we learnt more about what had happened. My cousin had depression. She was on medications. She had attempted suicide before but failed. My aunt had been taking long leaves to stay home with her. Kavya has been getting better though. She was in therapy and on meds. My aunt assumed the danger had passed and went to work again. Unfortunately, she was wrong.
After my 10th standard boards, I randomly decided to study psychology instead of science like I had originally planned. I think it was my curiosity to understand why she did what she did, to understand why someone would go to these lengths to end their lives that led me to make this major career decision.
Eventually the sorrow of Kavya’s passing faded away. It took some time, and some imaginary letters addressed to her, but eventually the thought of Kavya didn’t make my chest hurt. Over time, I no longer associated her death with my passion for psychology.
So it took me some time to realise that I had first-hand witnessed the stigma attached to suicide and depression that we hold in our society. I saw the shame when my parents asked me to keep the truth hidden from everyone. My mother worried that depression was genetic and that if people learnt of Kavya’s depression, they’d assume we were sick too.
I heard my parents trying to figure out what led her to become depressed. They wondered if my aunt was hiding some ‘truth’ from us. They wondered if it was school or drugs, or maybe peer pressure or hanging out with her best friend who also happened to be suffering from depression. They lamented about how this ‘loving, happy girl’ had lost herself. Our family tried to find someone, something to pin the blame on, but they never got a satisfying answer. I now understand that there is no satisfactory or convenient answer to explain our loss. There is no one to blame, and especially not her.
We like to think that there is an open conversation in India today about mental health, but that isn’t the case. To this date, my extended family thinks Kavya died in a bus crash. Maybe that’s a good thing- I do not think her parents can handle any more questions about ‘what actually happened to Kavya for her to become depressed’.
There is a pressing need for education across the country about mental health and illnesses, and a need to destigmatise it. Today, on World Suicide Prevention Day, while I advocate for greater awareness amongst the people about mental health, I also urge you not to blame those who decide to end their lives. Those who try to, or succeed at, harming themselves do not do so to spite the people around them, or because they are selfish.
Depression can make you short-sighted, blind to the good things or possibilities in life, and forces you to remain in your own darkness. Kavya is as much a victim to her depression as she would have been if she truly had been killed in a bus crash.
In Canada, my aunt has an essay stuck to her fridge. It arrived to her house after my cousin’s death. It was her French assignment, where she had written about her family, and how she loved them… Kavya’s family has enough grief to last them a lifetime. They do not need people to add to that with their judgements about them, their upbringing, their care, their love and their loss.
We as a society need to learn to have empathy towards the ones lost rather than sit back and judge them. We must learn to have compassion for the lives lost and the lives ruined. Think about the personal battles that people have to fight to get to that point. They, too, are victims, lost too soon.
So, instead of judging today, let us mourn all the battles that were lost. Let us mourn them and grieve for them, but for once, without conditions attached.
Let's resolve to make the world a little more sensitive on World Suicide Prevention Day, 10th Sep 2020.