Recently, Mumbaikars woke up to a news report that even had the most hardened-to-gory headlines clucking in dismay. A family of four was found dead in a Bhakti Park building at Wadala, in what was believed to be a joint suicide. Donato Anthony (49), his wife Elizabeth (45), son Jason (12) and daughter Vivenne (4) staying in a flat no 501, at Odyssey tower in Bhakti Park were found dead.
The tragedy throws the spotlight on a phenomenon called a ‘suicide pact’. While it falls under the broader umbrella of suicide, a 'pact' has some unique features like: there are two or more individuals who agree to kill themselves. It is usually pre-planned and therefore has a high success rate. A counsellor called Vidya, with the Vandrevala Foundation a mental health help line (counsellors at the foundation do not give their real names but use pseudonyms) said that as counsellors they do not get distress calls from a group, “But distressed individuals are at their lowest point when they call. They have reached a point of hopelessness and no return. Our priority which would be the same with people in a suicide pact, is to start working on their low self-esteem pointing out the many strong points, achievements and turning the positive to the negative. The focus is on: you have so much to live for instead of all is lost.”
Dr Zirak Marker consultant child and adult psychiatrist has seen a case or two of what appeared to be a suicide pact. He explains, “We hear about this in certain cults especially but that is not to say that it does not happen in ordinary persons. I have seen the kids survive while the parents did not make it. Very young kids of course, are simply drawn into a pact, as they do not understand the concept of life and death. It can be extremely selfish for parents to drag their innocent children into this, but it is a point where people feel they have no other recourse.”
Marker adds, “Individual suicides may happen because of a neuro-chemical imbalances in the brain, while pacts are more or less circumstantial. In India, suicide pacts are usually finance-based. Of course, we do hear of pacts between teenagers suffering from depression or loneliness and people with certain ideologies committing suicide together but these are deviations. Suicide pacts happen in rural areas and in cities too, where there is stress of a financial nature. The Govt. needs to step in to make the system easier and therefore mitigate stress.”
For Dr V Kale, Professor and Head of the Department of Psychiatry JJ College, “In a suicide pact there is one person or two persons could be the planners. At times, these planners may not be able to force or convince everybody to go along with the pact, as every person is different and has a unique personality. It may all depend on the power structure in a family. When it is a pact within a family, people go along as a family is bound together emotionally as a single unit. A pact has a high success rate, as it is well planned and not a spur of the moment act.”
When asked what would happen if a family member did not die and actually survived the suicide, Dr Kale said, “It depends on whom the survivor is. If it is a leader or second leader, who would be a senior person, then his coping mechanism might be stronger than say children who might be completely traumatised.” In the end, Dr Kale says, “A family might benefit from support of other relatives. In many cases, we see that the larger, extended family and friends have completely abandoned them and do not want to interact with them.”
Sejal Mehta, educational counsellor too says that suicide pacts are well planned, “A suicide pact per se is not an instant decision and the leader, if one could call him that, might emotionally blackmail other persons into going along with the act. Sometimes, if it is a family and the man has planned a suicide, the woman and children feel at times, that they have to go along. A woman might feel she has nowhere else to go if she does not agree. The children if old enough might feel guilty if they do not agree. This is a complex phenomenon.”
Professor Susannah Malkan, head, Dept. of Sociology, S K Somaiya College looks through the social lens. Prof Malkan says, “This generation is facing a shift in priorities from the basic to the unachievable. The new generation does not believe in slow and steady growth, which is also more stable in the long run. They want to achieve the maximum in a short span of time. There has been a major shift in our value systems, from placing emphasis on humanity and life, we are laying emphasis on money, status, power and prestige.”
Prof. Malkan also believes like in the Wadala case, “The impact of this kind of family suicide can be detrimental to a society and more so to certain classes in society as suicide could gradually evolve into a class action. The very fact that a family commits suicide silently together portrays a group action. A group in the form of a family or a class is a very strong force to reckon with. It has the power to influence. This can be threatening to a society that may anticipate a rise in suicides among certain classes who may have fallen prey to the growing economic recession.”
Suicide pact: When two or more individuals agree to kill themselves at the same time or almost the same time, it is called a suicide pact. The individuals may be friends, relatives, spouses whose motives are personal.
Mass suicide: A suicide pact is different from a mass suicide in which large groups of people commit suicide for an ideological reason.
Online suicide pacts: A trend that began in the last decade, involves strangers coming together via social networking or chat forums, and making a pact to commit suicide. These are called internet or online suicide pacts. Cyber suicide pacts are different from the more traditional suicide pacts. In the latter usually, older individuals commit suicide while in the former, it is younger persons who barely know each other. They may have only one common link, which is clinical depression.
The Land of Zen and Yen and Bushido -- the way of the warrior
Japan has a high suicide rate with suicide pacts and cyber suicide pacts particularly high amongst the current generation. While there are different analysis, one maybe that a sense of shame is very deeply ingrained in this society. Some trace this back to ‘Bushido’ or the way of the warrior, where honour was all.
In traditional Japanese societies, Samurai (warriors) would commit harakiri (suicide) by Seppuku, which means putting a sword through the stomach to disembowel oneself. A Samurai would choose to die voluntarily with honour by Seppuku rather than to die at the hands of their enemies where they would most likely be tortured.
Seppuku could be performed either in battle or it could be a planned ritual in front of spectators.
Obligatory Seppuku was used as a form of capital punishment for a disgraced Samurai especially those who had committed rape, robbery, corruption, treason or unplanned murder.