While this may be an extreme step, psychiatrists say altruistic suicides have existed for eons in societies across the world. Sociologist Emile Durkheim classified suicide into four types – egoistic (when the level of social integration is low and the person does not feel they belong to society), anomic (happens during times of great stress or change, such as losing a job or a loved one), altruistic (where the person is so integrated into society or with a particular cause that they don’t give importance to the individual) and fatalistic (occurring in social conditions where the individual experiences pervasive oppression). What is common is that they are all connected to the individual’s relationship with society.
“Altruistic suicide is when the person takes the step for the benefit of society or family,” says psychiatrist Dr N Rangarajan. For instance, if there is a famine and not enough food available, some of the elders commit suicide so whatever is available can be shared among the young ones. “In ancient Tamil custom of ‘vadakku iruthal’, they would sit facing the north and fast until death,” adds Dr Rangarajan.
In Tamil Nadu, people have committed suicide after the death of political leaders like MGR, says Dr Thara Srinivasan, director, Schizophrenia Research Foundation. The implementation of Prime Minister V P Singh’s Mandal Commission‘s recommendations for job reservations for backward castes is another instance where many youngsters killed themselves to protest against the larger cause. “But we feel there could be some baseline depression which pushes them. But you can’t be sure about it unless you have examined the person.”
Dr Lakshmi Vijayakumar, founder-trustee of Sneha suicide helpline, is of a similar point of view. “Usually suicide is not due to a single problem. There is no one reason why a person commits suicide, a lot of things have to go wrong for it to happen,” she says, adding that it is usually is a combination of proximal and distal factors, which would include neuro-biological causes, early childhood neglect and trauma, witnessing violence, family history of mental disorder or alcoholism. “Many people may have these and when there are environmental triggers, it expresses as suicidal behaviour,” says Dr Vijayakumar. She stresses that in the personality of a suicidal person some traits are prominent – impulsivity, and black or white thinking, where they cannot see middle ground.
Psychiatrists stress on the fact that suicidal behaviour doesn’t help further any cause. “Killing oneself over any reason isn’t a problem solving approach. It is a self-defeating act as you are demoralising an already demoralised society,” says Dr Rangarajan. “What is needed is a proactive approach, where you work towards furthering the cause, or achieving whatever you want, and even roping in people to help.”