Page last updated at 11:32 GMT, Monday, 1 February 2010

Alarm at Mumbai's teenage suicide trend

By Zubair Ahmed
BBC News, Mumbai

Sharadashram Vidyamandir school
Sharadashram Vidyamandir school has been rocked by Shushant Patil's death

A writer once said that more than one soul dies in a suicide.

It seems so in Neha Sawant's home. The atmosphere in the tiny flat in Mumbai has been lifeless since the 11-year-old was found hanging from her apartment window.

It has been weeks but her parents are still in deep shock. They look dazed and sleep-deprived.

Neha's distraught grandmother said in a broken voice: "Our brains are not working. We still cannot believe it."

Neha, at 11, must be one of the youngest in Mumbai to commit suicide. Figures suggest that more and more teenagers in India's financial hub are killing themselves.


Inexplicably, teenage suicides have become an almost daily occurrence in Maharashtra - one of India's most developed states - and its capital Mumbai (Bombay).

Rhea Timbekar
Something has gone amiss in [children's] lives quite early and suicides are a manifestation of that
Clinical psychologist Rhea Timbekar

The toll of teenage suicides from the beginning of the year until 26 January 2010 stood at 32, which is more than one a day.

While there are no comparative figures for the same period in 2009, there is a consensus among the concerned authorities in Mumbai that teenage suicides are spiralling out of control.

There is also a general agreement between psychologists and teachers that the main reason for the high number of teenagers taking their own lives is the increasing pressure on children to perform well in exams.

The scale of this largely preventable problem is dizzying - both in India with its billion-plus people and particularly in the state of in Maharashtra.

More than 100,000 people commit suicide in India every year and three people a day take their own lives in Mumbai.

Suicide is one of the top three causes of death among those aged between 15 and 35 years and has a devastating psychological, social and financial impact on families and friends.

'Needless toll'

World Health Organisation Assistant Director-General Catherine Le Gals-Camus points out more people die from suicide around the world than from all homicides and wars combined.

"There is an urgent need for co-ordinated and intensified global action to prevent this needless toll. For every suicide death there are scores of family and friends whose lives are devastated emotionally, socially and economically," she says.

Mangala Kulkarni
The children don't realise they have more avenues than academic successes
School principal Mangala Kulkarni

In Mumbai the authorities are so alarmed by the scale of the problem that they have began a campaign, Life is Beautiful, which aims to help students cope with academic pressure.

Psychologists visit government schools in Mumbai once a week to train teachers dealing with students' problems.

Sharadashram Vidyamandir school boasts illustrious alumni such as cricketers Sachin Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli. It has been holding parent-teacher assemblies where parents can receive tips on tackling the pressures children face.

And yet such sessions could not prevent 12-year-old Shushant Patil's death. He was found hanging in the school toilet on 5 January.

Mangala Kulkarni is the principal of the girls' section of the school. She says that ultimately families need to be more proactive when it comes to stopping students from feeling stressed.

"The children don't realise they have more avenues than academic successes. They need to be made to realise this by their families from childhood," she said.


A helpline in Mumbai, called Aasra, has been operating for several years to tackle the problem.

The director of the helpline, Johnson Thomas, says the problems today's children face are manifold: "They have peer pressure, they have communication problems with their parents, broken relationships, academic pressure and fear of failure," he says.

Aasra class in Mumbai
Classes to help vulnerable teenagers are now being held

The home ministry estimates that for every teenage suicide in Mumbai there are 13 failed attempts.

One theory behind the recent rise is the influence of a recently released Bollywood blockbuster, Three Idiots, which has a scene where an engineering student is shown committing suicide after a mediocre exam result.

The film's impact has been debated and scrutinised in prime time television shows, with many directly blaming it for adding to the problem.

But Mumbai clinical psychologist Rhea Timbekar argues that it would be wrong to blame the film, which she says strives to explain that parents should not put too much pressure on their children.

Ms Timbekar says that she recently met a child who had not eaten for four days.

The child's parents said they were upset with him because he only got 89% in exams and stood third in the class, compared to coming first in previous years.

"Such parents need to be counselled," she asserts.

Ms Timbekar said that another explanation for the high teenage suicide rate was "copycat suicides" where children read about suicides in newspapers and decide to do the same thing themselves.

'Extreme steps'

Dilip Panicker, an eminent psychologist in Mumbai, says that pressure of exams is alone is too simplistic an explanation.

Pupil at Sharadashram Vidyamandir school
It's hoped that young people will have a brighter future

"At one level school pressures and expectations from parents are a valid reason," he says, "but that's always been there.

"In fact, parents used to beat up their kids in our time. What's changed is that today children are more aware, they have more exposure. They are more independent. So they blame themselves for failures and take extreme steps."

Psychologists also argue that the definition of a teenager needs to be revised in 2010.

"Today's 11-year-olds are the new teens. What we did at the ages of 14 and 15 children can do at 11 today," says Rhea Timbekar.

She demolishes the theory that children are more likely to be spontaneous in committing suicide, as opposed to adults who start with an idea, proceed with a plan and end with action.

"A child doesn't just wake up in the morning and says I will commit suicide today," she argues. "Something has gone amiss in their lives quite early on and suicides are a manifestation of that."

The breakdown of India's traditional family system is also being blamed for the problem. In a city like Mumbai - where it is common for both parents to work - children tend to become reclusive and watch too much television.

Dilip Panicker argues that there is a simple solution.

"If parents love their children unconditionally, with all their successes and failures, the problem would be greatly alleviated."

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