The internal war on taboo

The war on terror, oxymoronic as it might be, has, as one of its myriad effects, led to the attribution of the word ‘suicide’ to an act of barbaric terrorism and misguided religious fanaticism. In doing so, the word ‘suicide’ has been deprived of its individuality and the bold meaning it holds independent of the shrapnel that the nation walks upon, barefoot with bated breath.

17-year-old Nourez was neither a terrorist nor a war veteran laying down his life before an enemy tank on the battlefield. He was a 10th grade student from Karachi, consumed by the barriers to his affection presented by his father, resulting in him shooting the girl he adored and, in immediate succession, his own self. Whether his suicide was an act of guilt or an attempt to join Fatima in the hereafter may perhaps never be determined. One thing, though, is for certain: he was a genie living in a bell jar that felt the need to set himself free. This is not the first such incident of its nature to have been reported.

In a country such as ours, how do we ensure that we do not become desensitized to such heart-wrenching incidents that occur on an almost daily basis? How do we ensure that Nourez and all those before him are not taken as mere statistics in the calculation of the suicide rate of Pakistan?

As of 2012, suicide was the 15th leading cause of death across the globe, according the World Health Organization (WHO), succeeded by factors such as heart disease, stroke and road accidents. It was, however, the second leading cause of death for the age bracket of 15 to 29 year olds globally, with 75% of the total suicides committed the world over taking place in low and middle income countries.
If you were to estimate the actual rate of the occurrence of suicide worldwide, it would amount up to almost one person taking his or her own life every 40 seconds; an average television commercial is between 15 and 30 seconds long.

What drives someone to the point of committing suicide? Is it preventable? Have we failed, as a society, to prevent it? After all is not even one life lost to the jaws of suicide a life too much?

Andrew Solomon in his book, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression writes, “Suicide, in its many forms, is a complication of depression; it is critical to understand how a depression can become fatal.” The WHO further confirms depression as the leading disability world over.
Depression, like all other issues of mental health, is treated in our society with an unsolicited attachment of taboo. As Kevin Breel puts it in his TED Talk, Confessions of a Depressed Comic, “That’s the stigma, because unfortunately, we live in a world where if you break your arm, everyone runs over to sign your cast, but if you tell people you’re depressed, everyone runs the other way. … We are so … accepting of any body part breaking down other than our brains. And that’s ignorance. That’s pure ignorance, and that ignorance has created a world that doesn’t understand depression, that doesn’t understand mental health.”

Is there a root cause to depression? Can it be understood and prevented?

A number of factors can contribute to the onset of depression. In 2006, based on a report by the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, Pakistan, it was estimated that roughly 5,800 people had taken their own lives within the first three quarters of the year. It is worth noting that the poverty rate according to the 2005 – 06 survey was 23pc, remaining constant through the next year as well.

In a developing country such as ours where labourers and workers toil day and night to make ends meet as the breadwinners for their family, unemployment can take a great toll on their physical, emotional and psychological well being, as well as that of their families who rely either solely or heavily upon the income generated from their jobs.

Academic responsibilities also levy, at times, an insurmountable pressure upon students. Reported suicides committed by students in the past decade have been placed at some of the leading institutions across Pakistan, with universities such as LUMS and Aga Khan being part of the list.

However, can a support system help?

Ash Beckham in her TED Talk, We’re All Hiding Something, discusses the notion of coming out of the closet by explaining, “All a closet is is a hard conversation, and although our topics may vary tremendously, the experience of being in and coming out of the closet is universal. It is scary, and we hate it, and it needs to be done. Sure I’ll give you a 100 reasons why coming out of my closet was harder than coming out of yours, but here’s the thing: Hard is not relative. Hard is hard. We need to stop ranking our hard against everyone else’s hard to make us feel better or worse about our closets and just commiserate on the fact that we all have hard.”

We see that the stigma and taboo surrounding the topic leads to a subdued discussion, if at all, between parents and their children regarding mental health problems that they might be facing or enduring. Often we are hushed and told that we are ‘okay’ and that it is ‘all in our head’ and that we should ‘try and be happy’ and soon we will realize we were just feeling sad.

Except, if sadness is the weather, then depression is a climate. And climates don’t change from one day to the next, and often don’t move on until months. In the case of depression, it can even last several years.

Seeking treatment for depression might cost you a sizeable amount of money but leaving it untreated holds the potential of costing you your life.

Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work discusses her research on shame and vulnerability, and states, “There was only one variable that separated the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging and the people who really struggle for it. And that was, the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they’re worthy of love and belonging. That’s it. They believe they’re worthy.”

This sense of self worth, though ought to stem from within one’s own self, has invariably become linked to our environment. In today’s age of virtual reality where social networking is dependent on the number of likes, shares, comments, re-tweets and so on on a post and communication and social interaction is based, in reality, upon the isolation of every user on the platform, the want to garner approval or acceptance turns into a compulsive need.

What if we could curb the rejection? What if we could silence the taboo, bury the stigma and allow those with mental health issues to raise their voices? What if, in return, we could offer a little understanding and a little empathy? What if we could prove humanity still existed and help everyone fully realise the limitless extent of his or her self worth?

Nourez’s case may well be summed up in the first line of Solomon’s book, “Depression is the flaw in love. To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of that despair.”

But in his aftermath, let us take an axe and break open our closets, and let in that tiny ray of hope that might ignite the change we need. Let us begin this conversation by ending the unfair stigma attached to it, so that we can move forward and lend a helping hand or a listening ear.

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