Young Indians are more likely to commit suicide than previously thought, especially those living in wealthier and more educated regions, according to a study that experts say suggests India’s rapid development is driving many youths to despair.
Opportunities that have come with two decades of economic boom and open markets have also brought more job anxiety, higher expectations and more pressure to achieve, mental health experts said.
India has some of the world’s highest suicide rates, with many believing the biggest risk group to be rural farmers facing debt after poor harvests.
However, the study — published in The Lancet medical journal on Friday — says suicide rates are highest in the 15-29 age group, peaking in southern regions that are considered richer and more developed with better education, social welfare and health care.
That puts the young at high risk — a new phenomenon experts said has happened recently as more middle-class youths strive to meet achievement expectations, and new technologies like cellphones and social networking sites help break down traditional family units once relied on for support. However, the higher suicide figures also reflect better reporting and may account for some of the increase.
Overall, the report uses a national government survey of deaths in 2001 to 2003 to estimate 187,000 that suicides took place in 2010, making it the cause of 3 percent of deaths that year.
The WHO reports about 1 million suicides a year, which would be a rate of about 14 per 100,000 in a global population of 7 billion. By comparison, the US had 37,790 suicides in 2010, or a rate of 12.2 per 100,000, while India’s rate under The Lancet’s projected suicide tally of 187,000 would be near 16 — far higher than earlier reports and estimates of about 10.
There has been little scientific examination of suicide motives in India.
While The Lancet study does not address the question of motivation, the report’s authors, as well as experts not associated with the study, saw few likely reasons for the rise in suicide among young people beyond the increased pressure that has come with new economic opportunity and social fragmentation.
The higher rates may come from “the greater likelihood of disappointments when aspirations that define success and happiness are distorted or unmet by the reality faced by young people in a rapidly changing society,” said Vikram Patel, one of the report’s authors, in an editorial printed in the Hindu.
He added that online social networking was making “loneliness more common.”
He said his conclusion was conjecture, but added: “I cannot think of any more plausible explanation.”
Among men, 40 percent of suicides were among people age 15-29. For women, it was nearly 60 percent. The numbers mean young men are nearly as likely to die from suicide as in traffic accidents, while rates of suicide among young women are nearly as high as the rate of death by complications from pregnancy or childbirth.
The revelation has shocked many in a country notorious for poor maternal health care statistics. Still, death rates from maternal health have been dropping, which may explain why suicide figures are getting closer.
“We can only guess broadly at what might be behind it. People say partially the rapid changes on society that have come with globalization, the breakdown of the families,” said Roy Abraham, president of the Indian Psychiatric Society.