noun sui·cide \ ˈsü-ə-ˌsīd \
Merriam-Webster definition: : “the act or an instance of taking one’s own life voluntarily and intentionally”
I woke up to Anthony Bourdain’s death headlining CNN on Friday morning – June 8th, 2018. There was a dull thud in my heart and total silence enveloping my mind. No, I did not know Mr. Bourdain personally. Neither was I on a first name basis with Kate Spade… nor with Robin Williams. But my reaction to the news stories of their deaths was a sense of stunned shock.
With each story came a sense of dread which followed closely on the heels of the initial shock that I had felt. A deep sadness spread, slowly staining my emotions in a very palpable sense. And through it I saw the pattern that bound these talented, bright, amazing individuals… in the brilliance of their abilities – in lives lived in the spotlight, of fame and fortune, and in their sudden – decimating – definite ending.
Death in any form has a finality to it, no doubt. It remains one of the absolute truths of existence, just as Birth is. The human experience seems primed to engage in the happy prospect of ‘Beginnings,’ while instinctively unwilling to face up to ‘Endings.’ But face it – we must, at some time or another. The act of inflicting harm upon oneself, trying to or successfully managing to take one’s own life – has the power to shake our belief in all that is enduring and good. It also leaves heartache and shatters the lives of loved ones in its wake.
The dictionary labels the word “Suicide” as a ‘noun.’ When translated into a ‘verb,’ it takes on a violent and malignant form, which has been described in many ways. An act of cowardice. A rejection of the Divine gift of Life. The worst form of ‘Himsa’ or violence. Each of our world’s major religions, varied as their language may be, agree in this unflinching belief, and condemn the taking of one’s own life.
Human beings in the course of their evolution have a ‘Fight or Flight’ instinct hardwired into their DNA. I can imagine desperation and extreme helplessness in someone considering such an act. But I do not see cowardice. To me, it seems to require strength of a different kind to be able to carry out an act that goes against a basic human instinct to safeguard, and protect ourselves. And yet, some of us manage to do it. Why?
The World Health Organization (WHO) has staggering statistics on the number of suicides globally. Close to 800,000 people die due to suicide every year. This number is difficult to comprehend! It means one person every 40 seconds takes their own life! The numbers further state that for each adult who died of suicide there may have been more than 20 others attempting suicide. Not to speak of the number of children and young adults who have been in the news in India and elsewhere recently. Apart from social, economic and political causes that drive such sad ‘trends,’ like the farmers in India for example, there is a common underlying reason – Psychological.
What is it that prevents individuals who seem otherwise well adjusted, from seeking out psychological help when in obvious distress? I am aware that we do not go through life with the number for a helpline keyed into our speed dials. I also know that for most of us the knee-jerk response to “How are you doing?”, is “Great!”. But I struggle to understand how in this age of information, of smartphones; people can find themselves so isolated and helpless that the only option is for them to end it all – by making that ultimate, unthinkable choice.
Or is the truth pointing in the other direction? Has their cry for help gone unheard and unnoticed? Or could they have lacked the awareness as to where to seek help?
South Asian Cultural Context:
There might be a cultural quotient to this as well. And that bears examining. To my mind, Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade and Robin Williams belonged to a culture where seeking therapy and counseling for their mental or physical ills is accepted for the most part – but they still became part of this dark statistic. What about the South Asian context, where even in this day and age, there exists a stigma associated with certain realities? Where openly discussing or admitting to illness like cancer or Parkinson’s, let alone mental illness – is still considered off-limits – a taboo?
Dr. Bindu Garapaty, Psyd. in Clinical Psychology, is focussed on empowering the mental health of women in the South Asian community (S.F Bay Area) through health consultancy, and advocacy. She cites a lack of awareness as the key ingredient which leads to the perpetuation of unconscious taboos / stigma, prevalent within the S.Asian community. This, coupled with a lack in the numbers of mental health providers who are sensitive to cultural differences, creates a gap that seems too wide to bridge. She calls for a ‘movement of solidarity’, to help change the dialog within the community.
Ulash Thakore-Dunlap, is Asst. Professor in the MA Counseling Psychology Program at the Wright Institute, Berkeley and is engaged in clinical practice in San Francisco. She is also the first South Asian to hold a seat as Co-Chair on the Mental Health Board of San Francisco. Through her counseling practice and by serving as advisor in various organizations, Ulash has been instrumental in creating advocacy and visibility for S.Asian mental health professionals and clinical needs.
Ulash admits that there is shame and stigma within some S.Asian community members in seeking mental health support. They generally feel much more comfortable seeing their primary care provider, but face barriers – personal and family related – in receiving counseling. Some have also shared that they have had negative experiences finding a good cultural fit in the counselors they sought out, which led them to not seek counseling again.
The Annual South Asian Mental Health Conference organized by Drs. Preet Kaur Sabharwal and Nina Kaur has been valuable in bringing providers and community members together interested in learning about South Asian mental health needs, sharing best practices and advocacy work. The conference is in its third year and will be taking place in November 2018 in Fremont, California.
More importantly, Ulash brings to light a bias from non-South Asian providers that all our community members are affluent and working in the tech industry; despite the fact that we have many members who do not fit this media stereotype. She calls for more awareness from the mental health care providers, in terms of the diversity within the S.Asian community, relating to language, culture, personal experiences, immigration experience and choice of work. But she is encouraged by some great efforts, by individuals and organizations in the S.F Bay Area to increase visibility of S. Asian mental health needs.
Parijat Deshpande, therapist, speaker, advocate – and founder of MySahana.org; is one such individual. Parijat started the organization in 2010, while still in the middle of graduate training in Clinical Psychology. She realized there was a tremendous gap in terms of applying the tools that she was learning as part of her training towards helping members within her own community. “Our family values and the way we are brought up is significantly different,” she says. Even in cases where they do seek mental help, cultural taboos prevent South Asians from going the whole way in finishing treatment. She further adds that they have the highest dropout rate with therapy, and the lowest awareness in terms of finding help.
Parijat highlighted an important fact, “In all of India’s many languages, there is no specific word for mental illness – except ‘crazy!’ This brings about an inherent language bias, along with judgements and stigma.” She started MySahana.org mainly to help educate, provide outreach services and help connect the South Asian community to the right mental health service providers. In 2016, they started an online South Asian cultural competency training program for Non South Asian clinicians, providing much-needed resources for those that have little understanding of the cultural needs of their clients.
Young adults (late teens to late 20s), form the most “at risk” age group for depression, in the S.F Bay Area’s South Asian community. Parijat cites the cultural paradigm of straddling and navigating two separate cultures as being the main challenge for this age group, in the Bay Area. In addition, there is tremendous academic pressure which leads to a myopic view of life, where self-worth becomes determined by academic success. “The problem mounts until it compounds into a pressure cooker of sorts,” she says.
Typically, parents of teenage kids contact MySahana looking for referrals and resources. Young adults in the 20- year age bracket do not seek out help themselves, but people in their 30s do so occasionally. The typical 40+ year old will call with concerns regarding aging parents. The majority of calls come from women in their 50s – “empty nesters” who recognize signs of depression, and experience a severe loss of identity.
MySahana.org does not provide therapy. But they fulfill the community’s need to provide better access to appropriate services. They are always looking for volunteers across the country. Through their outreach events, they hope to reach a wider audience and foster much needed awareness.
When Robin Williams’ death hit the news feed in August 2014, I remember experiencing the same mind-numbing shock. The words of a song, a classic Jagjit and Chitra Singh ghazal floated through my mind, “Tum Itna Jo Muskura Rahe Ho, Kya Gham Hai Jisko Chupa Rahe Ho” – “You seem to be smiling thus, What sorrows might you be hiding behind it?” It seemed a fitting musical eulogy for a remarkable human being, who made the whole world laugh, while apparently hiding his own pain behind a veil of hilarity.
As we pay tribute to the man, the author, the traveler, the entertainer – who called himself Anthony Bourdain, we must also remember the “plain talking” power of his words. “As you move through this life and this world, you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life — and travel — leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks — on your body or on your heart — are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt.”
We wish you peace Mr. Bourdain, as you move on to explore – “Parts Unknown.”
We can all help prevent suicide. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.
- Get trained in identifying and supporting people at risk. Question. Persuade. Refer (QPR) is a FREE online or in-person suicide prevention training, available to anyone 18 years of age or older who lives or works in Santa Clara County. This training covers the myths and facts related to suicide, warning signs of suicide, how to ask Questions, how to Persuade someone in crisis to seek help, and to Refer them to resources. This and other trainings can be found at www.sccbhsd.org/suicideprevention.
- Know the signs. Every day in California, friends, family and co-workers struggle with emotional pain. And, for some, it’s too difficult to talk about the pain, thoughts of suicide, and the need for help. Though the warning signs can be subtle, they are there. By recognizing these signs, and knowing how to start a conversation and where to turn for help, you have the power to make a difference – the power to save a life. Go towww.suicideispreventable.org.
- Encourage family and friends in crisis or thinking about suicide to make use of mental health resources.
Santa Clara County Suicide and Crisis Hotline
Pavani Kaushik is a visual artist who loves a great book almost as much as planning her next painting. She received a BFA from the Academy of Art University, San Francisco. She has held art shows in London, Bangalore and locally here in California.