On October 12, the Supreme Court ordered the government to suggest remedial measures to address the concern that online games like the “Blue Whale” were leading to suicides by young people in India. The game is apparently able to “psychologically provoke players to indulge in daring, self-destructive tasks for fifty days before finally taking the winning step of killing themselves”. I was surprised by this swift reaction because the fact that suicide is a leading cause of death among India’s youth has been known for many years and there has been virtually no acknowledgment of this public health crisis by any responsible authority. As is often reflected in our warped sense of priorities, the attention is now skewed on an “external” threat such as an online game, while ignoring the pervasive factors, intrinsic to our society, which are driving tens of thousands of our youth to take their own lives.
That young people are developmentally primed to take risks and behave impulsively is well-recognised; it is the result of a unique combination of biological events (such as changes in the brain and puberty) and social expectations (such as those related to completing education and finding a partner) which occur during this period of life. These developmental characteristics are essential to prepare the adolescent to successfully negotiate the transition from dependence on one’s parents to being able to face up to the inevitable challenges of adult life. But these also present unique vulnerabilities, not least when a young person feels trapped by circumstances beyond his control. In India, customs and traditions which have thrived for centuries are now in conflict with the desires of young people and it is this conflict which is, at least in part, fuelling our astonishing rate of youth suicide. In short, young people are finding their desires to lead the lives of their choice being thwarted.
One such desire is to pursue an education and a career of one’s choice. While young people today have innumerable opportunities for careers, social norms continue to stress “traditional” options such as medicine and engineering. There is tremendous pressure to attain absurdly high grades to secure admission to prized colleges and droves of youth are packed off to tuition factories in places like Kota, which has been in the news for being the epicentre of youth suicides. In a rare piece of thoughtful journalism on the Kota suicides, Snighda Poonam narrated accounts which spoke of crushed dreams. One particularly poignant story was that of Kumar who “doesn’t see himself as an IIT-type guy” and, when asked what it is he actually wanted to do, said he “never thought about that, I have never felt that free”.
The other desire is, not surprisingly, for romance. For some youth, being denied the right to love a person because of their religion, caste, community or sexual orientation, is the most tragic trigger for suicides. No account of suicide can be more heart-rending than that of couples taking their lives because they cannot bear to be apart, and being together would invite the wrath, and in some cases the real threat, of physical harm. In March, Feroz Ahmed and Gunjha Sharma, teenagers in Uttar Pradesh’s Shahjahanpur district, ended their lives to spare their families of harassment on account of their relationship. The teenagers first hugged each other, then Feroz shot Gunjha and then he turned the pistol on himself. This tragedy followed on the heels of Sonu Mohammad and Sheelam Kumari, secondary school students in Agra, who locked themselves in a room and set themselves on fire. Police said their bodies were found locked in a tight embrace and that the suicides had been precipitated by the forced marriage of Sheelam to another man.
Of course, these are extreme examples, but they do represent the tip of the iceberg of pent-up frustrations of millions of India’s youth striving to break free of orthodox values which prohibit them from exercising control over their bodies, and their hearts. Exposed to an ocean of opportunities through education, urbanisation and globalisation, they find themselves trapped in a puddle of repressive norms and bigotry. Focusing on the blue whale is a red herring. Conservative social customs are poisoning the lives of our youth, fuelled by forces which champion antiquated views of our society, stratified by class, caste and religion. The World Congress on Adolescent Health is being held this weekend for the first time in India, a country which is home to the largest number of adolescents on the planet. It presents a unique opportunity to highlight that the toll of misery and suicides afflicting some of India’s youth is being fuelled by oppressive social norms.
If young people are the hope for our nation’s future, we must bring hope into their lives by entitling them with the freedom to choose how they live and whom they love.