Why Does a Quaint Town in India Have the World's Highest Suicide Rate?
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The colonial town of Puducherry is a beachside retreat … with a dark secret.
By Molly Fosco
Colorful resorts and 18th century churches dot the shoreline of Puducherry, the small city on India’s southeast coast formerly known as Pondicherry. Relics of the town’s French colonial history are still visible in the cobblestone streets and the sleek white structures, like the Aayi Mandapam, built during the era of Napoleon III. Puducherry — which is home to more women than men, a rarity in a country where female infanticide has been historically common — is also a popular vacation spot. In 2017, a record 1.6 million tourist visits were recorded.
But this beautiful beach town is hiding a dark secret. According to the World Health Organization:
Puducherry has the highest suicide rate in India — four times the national average. In fact, it’s the highest rate in the world, with 44 out of every 100,000 people taking their lives.
And that number is on the rise here — in 2014, the rate was 40.4 per 100,000 people. India’s overall suicide rate is far lower at 16.5 per 100,000 people. Meanwhile, countries with the highest rates — and rates notably lower than Puducherry’s — are Guyana, with 30.2 per 100,000 people; Lesotho with 28.9; Russia, Lithuania and Suriname.
So why are so many people in this quaint city killing themselves? In police records, the official reasons given are often broad and ambiguous: family problems, illness, examination stress. But those who’ve studied the problem see much more than that. Puducherry is actually two towns, still marred by its history of French colonial rule. The “White town,” where the French colonizers once lived, is home to shiny, beachfront tourist spots, while the rest of the city, where the colonized once resided, suffers from high unemployment rates and lacks access to formal education and health care.
Nearly three-quarters of people who suffer from mental health issues in Puducherry are between the ages of 15 and 34. “High rates of unemployment do not marry with the aspirations of the burgeoning youth population,” says Vikas Menon, a professor at Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research (JIPMER) in Puducherry who has studied suicide rates in the town. Families tend to put a lot of pressure on kids to do well in school, but succeeding academically can feel futile when there are still no job prospects. On the flip side, failing exams and getting poor grades is a deep source of shame for many students in Puducherry. Shortly after being grounded for failing her high school board exams in 2016, a 16-year-old named Ratna killed herself, according to a local publication, The Hindu. Her aunt and uncle said they left the house for a brief visit to their textile shop, and when they returned Ratna had hanged herself.
What’s more, alcohol is extremely cheap and easy to come by in Puducherry. Young people frustrated by school or work can easily drown their sorrows in booze, which isn’t subject to value-added tax in the region, Menon says. “Put together, it is a heady mix of poor education, unemployment, alcoholism and, perhaps, eventual suicide.”
The differences between the White town and the rest of Puducherry become more apparent when you consider the Aurobindo ashram, founded in 1926 and now reportedly a community of about 2,000 people. Followers of the Aurobindo are overrepresented in the White town, and because it is a closed community, their lifestyle differs from the rest of the city. Kids there are taught a different curriculum and have no formal exams. “Consequently, you can argue that stress is comparatively less,” says Menon. Thus, fewer suicides? “I do not know,” he says, “but this is a hypothesis.”
The major issue in Puducherry doesn’t seem to be mental health disorders or depression, but rather the presence of psychological stressors and environmental factors. A 2016 study in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine found that of 40 attempted suicide cases reviewed, 100 percent had reported experiencing some type of psychological stress, and none had a previous psychiatric diagnosis.
The ubiquity of suicides and suicide attempts here only serves to normalize it. A JIPMER study found that doctors from Puducherry were more accepting of suicide than doctors from other countries, with a lack of awareness that suicidal thoughts can be indicative of a serious problem.
Some organizations in Puducherry are working to change that. Trust for Youth and Child Leadership is a nonprofit that counsels youth in Puducherry and runs a suicide hotline. Last year, that hotline received 288 calls from young adults in the town — 257 percent more than the number of calls in 2017. “TYCL is undertaking research on the 360-degree root cause [of] youth suicide in Puducherry,” says Siva Mathiyazhagan, co-founder of TYCL. The organization frequently holds workshops and career guidance sessions for students, and provides education loan support, offering resources that many young people there don’t have. “[These] services are preventing young people from suicide social stigma [and] promoting positive mental well-being in Puducherry,” Mathiyazhagan says.
Despite the high suicide rate, Puducherry maintains its appeal for some. Menon, who has lived there for more than two decades, says the town has “old-worldly charm and tranquility,” and describes it as “a melting pot of cuisines, cultures and couture.”
As organizations like TYCL continue to push for change, hopefully, more Puducherry residents will be able to enjoy these aspects too.