In the American cult classic TV series Arrested Development one major character is Maeby Fünke. While the complexity of the role played by Alia Shawkat goes beyond the scope of this article, suffice it to say she is this very resourceful child of a dysfunctional marriage in an extremely dysfunctional family who does often ridiculous and occasionally awesome things to get her parents’ attention but they are so self-involved and wrapped-up in their failing fantasy worlds that all her attempts fail abysmally. Whenever she is mentioned that is to use her as a prop to settle arguments. Now substitute names. Let us assume Maeby represents the people of Pakistan, her parents the elite of the country and let’s assume that Arrested Development is Pakistan. And let’s talk about Pakistan’s suicide problem.
Recently, you must have come across one or two reports about suicides by people tired of unemployment or poverty. There is a good chance that you did not see the actual reports but were forced to look them up because a politician or influencer brought them up in a talk or on social media. Usually, these mentions occur when someone tries to use them to make a political point about how bad things are right now or how badly the economy is being managed. Such mentions reinforce my utter and total contempt for the political tribalism in the country. Over the years my contempt for this particular tribalism has grown so intense that I often am forced to think that we might have reached a point beyond redemption. Consider this. A broken shell of a man or woman committed suicide and with zero insights into his suffering or trials, you saw this story and took to the podium to use it against your political opponents. If there is a more heartless example of political point-scoring then I am not aware of it. Well, perhaps the use of the stories about poverty forcing people to sell and kill their children. But all is grist that comes to this mill. Fünkes and Maeby, see!
But this political swashbuckling obscures a grim reality. That Pakistan has a persistent suicide problem that has continued unabated year after year and under every government. If our politicians and influencers were not so eager to use this sorry state for political ends they could perhaps make themselves useful. These bully pulpits could go a long way in averting such tragedies. But why would anyone care? As long as there are suicides and the media frames them in equally blasé fashion you will never run out of political ammunition. If these words sound too mean to you please note that they are so intended. The only other explanation is ignorance in which case these people neither deserve to be politicians nor influencers.
Let’s hold a mirror up to a society that withdraws all its support to the ones going through a crisis. I know a lot about this because of two reasons. First, many people I know and care about have taken their lives. Many others have at least tried once. And don’t even get me started on how many have seriously thought about killing themselves. Second, as someone who has struggled with manic depression his whole life and who managed to improvise creative ways to combat this problem at an early age, I can tell you that seeking help or a basic diagnosis is not a cakewalk. In my case, a shrink friend, much later, acted on an impulse and invited me over for an assessment. Half the time the person going through the ordeal is not even aware of the condition. And in this society real experts seldom bother to advertise in newspapers or television. Usually, quacks do. You have to put in a lot of effort and expose your vulnerabilities to seek legitimate help.
So back to the societal response. It is not as if people with suicidal ideation keep everything secret. Remember, suicide is the last desperate act. Before that, there are plenty of signs that a person is sinking deeper and deeper into desperation. The person in crisis calls attention to their suffering. What is the response? Abandonment, withdrawal and avoidance. If you know someone who eventually took their life, can’t you remember what you did when they brought their problems to you? You most likely found a way to escape the room and stayed clear of their company. When someone goes through hell their friends, colleagues and usual support system, all retreat to one side and wait for the worst to happen. Once the person is dead, there comes the outpouring of shock, disbelief and affection. In many cases, even that doesn’t happen.
It is difficult to obtain substantive data. In the absence of annual local reports with credible data, you have to rely on the WHO’s reports. There is a stigma attached to suicide cases. The same clerics who took fifteen years to declare suicide bombing haram and even often glorified it refuse to lead funeral prayers if they learn that the dead person died by suicide. Despite featuring some shocking numbers the Wikipedia page on the subject is woefully out of date. The closest I came to finding an authentic work on the subject is a year-old survey piece titled “Pakistan’s silent suicide problem” by Atika Rehman and Jahanzaib Haque in Dawn. If there are other well-researched works they have failed to call attention to them.
I first thought of this piece when certain influencers started tweeting out reckless comments about a man who killed himself in a mall a few weeks back. But the real trigger that necessitated it was a report that appeared in New York Times last week titled “Where the Despairing Log On, and Learn Ways to Die” and a subsequent Twitter Space hosted by tech journalism savant Kara Swisher which I chanced upon. The story reveals a network of websites that are actively assisting their audience comprising mostly very young users in committing suicide. In this age of acceleration, the cases of hopelessness and despair keep mounting and thanks to global connectivity these ideas spread across national boundaries like wildfire. Back in our youth only banned books were there for the purpose. Now, these websites soon morph into phone apps and then can reach everyone in their native language. Now consider a country where there is no critical infrastructure for mental health, no national suicide prevention helpline, precious little avenues for counselling or help and an elite that is blissfully oblivious to the threat. Welcome to our arrested development.
The country’s leaders, politicians and influencers can play an important role. In the past few years, I have seen the miracles of their clout. When the PM talks about our obsession with the English language I see pieces being written on that. When he calls Priyantha Kumara’s murder shameful, I see even most conservative folks using the exact same words. When opposition leaders use a new derogatory term for the government within minutes it is on many lips. These powerful people could easily inform their followers to value their own lives and of others and in case we are lucky to one day have a national suicide prevention helpline give out the number.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 18th, 2021.