Mohmad Maqbool Waggy
Hamlet is contemplating suicide. Not in grief or mystification, but with astounding lucidity and logic. He has lost his father and is in distress that his widowed mother has remarried swiftly. His father’s ghost has visited him to divulge that he was put to death by his brother, who now wears the crown. It is a bleak and grim situation. Hamlet asks himself if it is better to end his life’s misery by one single, daring act.
If he does, what happens next? Where does the dead man’s soul go? What greater sorrows await us in that vast emptiness from which no traveller returns? Is it not better to face what one knows than to escape to the unknown?
Hamlet’s mind is conflicted, full of questions, but he analyses the situation and resolves it with composed logic. One wonders whether today’s young man can reflect on the consequences of his actions with such calm objectivity. A little introspection would surely make him realise, as it made Hamlet realise, that ending one’s life would be foolish, not wise.
In Kashmir, though, there is no let-up in suicides, especially among the young. In just the last 20 days, more than a dozen people have ended their lives. Every suicidal death leaves behind a trail of questions and a deep sense of void. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, this sense of disorder is further exacerbated. What we must do is to learn to identify the existential crisis as it builds within ourselves or others so that the terrible end it leads to can be averted.
For this it is crucial to understand the psychology of suicide. If the essential aim of human beings is freedom of choice, and life’s purpose is akin to Bentham’s Utilitarianism, a positive balance of pleasure over pain, then mental anguish and physical suffering can make suicide seem like a rational choice. It can even be seen as the supreme expression of sovereignty over one’s self.
But this is misleading in multiple ways. First, no human being is autonomous. Human beings are fundamentally social creatures. According to Aristotle, “Man by nature is a social creature, and an unsocial man is either beneath our notice or more than a human being.” Thus a man finds mental health only in the context of supportive relationships. In isolation, naturally, depressive people are more likely to enter the vicious cycle of despair. The inner voice that at first whispers worthlessness can become a scream of self-condemnation. It is doubly dangerous when there are no other voices — no kinder voices — to contradict it.
Second, in most cases, the rational reflection of suicide’s costs and benefits is a lie. The decision to kill oneself is generally informed by lies that seem very, very genuine at the moment – that loved ones don’t love you, that friends have disdain for you, that everyone is better off without you.
People with depression need around them people who are not just compassionate but also firm with them when they constantly grieve over the loss of a loved one or a job, or sever relations with others, or use drugs and alcohol to dull pain, or act heedlessly, or show signs of other changes in disposition or behaviour. In these situations, interference is not the violation of privacy — any more than using a cardio-ventricular fibrillation on a person having a heart attack is a violation of privacy. Invasiveness — defined by pushing a depressed person toward professional help — is the appropriate response to a medical emergency.
But people who experience depression have responsibilities of their own. In times when their depression is under control, they need to nurture a circle of family members and friends who are fully clued in to their illness. This requires the precise opposite of autonomy. It requires people with depression to be susceptible and enthusiastic to receive help. In this case, confidentiality and a sense of ignominy can lead to death.
It is not a simple or natural thing for people to periodically distrust their account of the truth. But that is what a person with depression must learn to do. When something that is self-condemning and self-destructive appears as self-evident, that is the time to trust in some other person’s more positive insight into reality. And then, with endurance and professional help, hope can make its return.
The writer is a research scholar at Department of Politics & Governance, Central University of Kashmir. [email protected]