By G. Manickam (MIPR, APR)
School of Media and Communication
(HRDF Certified Trainer)
I MET her on the first day of my university life. She had a warm and pleasant personality. Nisha (not actual name) had such innocence in her demeanor. She was friendly to everyone and always offered a helping hand when someone needed it. We knew very little about her family. For instance, she has two younger siblings and that they were raised by their maternal grandparents upon their mother’s untimely demise.
Time went by and we entered second year at university. Those days, we relied on public phones to call home as none of us had mobile phones. Each of us would have to take turn to make the phone call from the phone booth outside our hostel. It was Nisha’s turn to make the call and we were queueing behind her. Nisha appeared upset during the conversation. She stepped out of the booth and told us that her grandfather was in a critical condition in hospital. We consoled the distraught Nisha and kept checking on her from time to time.
Two days later, my roommate and I returned from campus after class and found Nisha sobbing uncontrollably in her room. We found out that her grandmother had passed away! This was shocking as we did not expect her healthy grandmother to pass on when it was her grandfather who was ill. Nisha wanted to leave immediately that night and we were worried and reluctant to let her travel by herself in a journey which would take approximately six hours. After some discussion, I called my father and got his permission to accompany her.
After about an hour into the bus journey, Nisha broke her silence. “I just know that she had committed suicide.” I was utterly shocked to hear this! “Your grandma?” I asked. She nodded and tears welled up her eyes. I looked at her sympathetically. Why would she say something like that? I wondered. Slowly, everything came pouring from her. “My mother committed suicide after my father left us for another woman. She didn’t even think of us!” she went on, and I was flabbergasted! All this was too much for a 19-year-old girl to take. I quietly listened to her. I gave Nisha what I felt she needed most at that moment, a listening ear. I could not believe that this fun-loving girl had so much of pain in her. She managed to camouflage it all these whiles.
The bus reached the toll gate past midnight, and her uncle was waiting for us. No one spoke a word throughout what I felt, the longest drive of my life. When we reached her house, another shock awaited us. Nisha’s grandfather had passed away too in the hospital that evening. It was such a fateful night for Nisha. We found out later that her grandmother did commit suicide, after all! It was rumoured that she could not watch her husband’s suffering and decided to end her life before him.
Nisha took some time off from university and even contemplated to quit her studies. We somehow managed to convince her otherwise. When she returned to campus, she kept mostly to herself, and we were lost as we did not know how to reach her.
One evening, when we compelled Nisha to join us for dinner, she shouted, “Perhaps I should die too. Only then you people would leave me alone!” We were stunned but decided to remain calm. The following day, we spoke to one of our seniors about Nisha. She advised us to be supportive of Nisha, continuously engage with her and do not leave her alone. We followed her advice and slowly there were some changes as Nisha started focusing on her studies and usual activities. Finally, she went on to fulfill her ambition by becoming a teacher. My friends and I were very proud of Nisha and her resilience in swimming against the tide of her life, emerging with a healthy and balanced state of mind. Otherwise, she would have become another statistic as we so feared.
I remembered Nisha while reading about the current alarming state of suicide cases all over the world. What is the definition of suicide, actually? Merriam-Webster dictionary defines suicide as an act or instance of taking one’s life voluntarily or intentionally. World Health Organisation (WHO) reported that suicide cases had increased by 60% in the last 45 years. It also revealed that mental health disorders (particularly depression and substance abuse) are associated with more than 90% of all suicide cases. The report further elaborates that suicide results from many complex sociocultural factors and is more likely to occur during periods of socioeconomic, family, and individual crisis, which is very similar to the current condition of Malaysia due to the pandemic. With continuous lockdown and savings running dry in many homes plus the rise in unemployment, one can only imagine the sufferings of people are going through now. Reports show a sharp hike of suicide cases in Malaysia with 336 suicides in the first three months this year. WHO mentioned that crisis is one of the indicators for suicide, and pandemic is a crisis. Therefore, instead of helping the people, implementation of Penal Code 309 which criminalizes act of suicide in Malaysia does not help in managing the current state of affairs.
Why would someone commit such a heart wrenching act if not pushed to the brink? Kihlstrom (1987) said, “An intense conscious feeling state of some kind seems to be necessary to trigger the act of suicide, but that does not mean unconscious forces are not present in the suicidal person.” Based on this statement, an intense conscious feeling can also refer to an unstable condition as when a feeling is intense, a sound judgement can be impossible.
Therefore, is it fair to criminalise suicide act and the victim? How would people come forward and ask for help if they are labelled as criminals?
In the past, many cultures in this world regarded suicide as a heroic act and not a crime. There was a reason or purpose for suicide those days. In Japan, for instance, ‘Harakiri’ was committed by the defeated Samurai as an honourable death. Meanwhile, the Japanese suicide bombers during World War 2 were also seen as performing ‘Harakiri’ and celebrated like heroes in their country. Furthermore, in the 18th century, during the fight against East India Company in India, Queen Velu Nachiyar’s army commander, Kuyili, became the first suicide bomber in Indian history. Her suicide was regarded as heroic and patriotic that the Tamil Nadu government erected a memorial to Kuyili in the Sivagangga district. Besides this, ‘Sati’ was also performed in India which is a suicide where the widow sacrifices herself by sitting atop on her deceased husband’s funeral pyre. Suicide was also a practice in the Chinese culture to protect their honour. During the Acheh War, the Muslim Achenese performed suicide attacks against the Dutch, and it was regarded as a heroic act. These suicides were performed by those who mostly knew and realised what they were getting themselves into. They sacrificed themselves for a principle they believed in, and most acts were driven by intense emotions.
However, the current suicide situation in the country is neither driven by heroism, clear conscious decision, nor principle related. Research data reveals various reasons for suicides such as mood, unhappiness, loneliness, financial, family, relationship, marital and weak character (G.P. Ginsburg, 1971; Sanja Miklin, et al, 2019). This research also reveals that those who attempted suicide did not have the intention to die and it was a momentary decision driven by intense emotion or unconscious forces. Researchers reveal that active listening, talking, and encouraging someone who goes through that feeling of loneliness and worthlessness to seek professional help can help in overcoming their struggles (Nicholas, A; et al. (2020), Jorm, AF; et al. (2005), Mason, RJ; et al. (2015). Without realizing, the time we spent with Nisha and our genuine concern managed to change her and allowed her to lead a well-deserved life now and we are glad it worked. Otherwise, I am afraid I might not have been able to overcome the guilt had we lost her.
There are many who go through depression and emotional stress given the continuous state of lockdown in the country which contributes to poor economic state. The person can be anyone among us. They can be our friends or family members. Keeping a check through simple messages and calls from time to time can give assurance that we care and that can prevent any unwelcome thoughts in the mind. We should not underestimate the power of our simple act. It can save someone’s life.
Now is the time to show our empathy, concern, and love towards one another as we may not know who might need it. If we come across someone in need of emotional support or feeling suicidal, we can propose help through organisations such as Befrienders who are trained to help people in such situations.
Befrienders KL reaches out to the community, particularly to groups at high risk of suicide by providing emotional support and active listening. The NGO is available 24 hours and can be reached through their hotline number: 03-76272929.
As the saying goes, prevention is always better than cure.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of TVS.
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