‘COVID-19 pandemic can spark suicides outside the sphere of conventional risk factors’

Shobha (name changed), 38, a housewife from an farming family with two children, did not have ‘risk factors’ that mental health experts conventionally associate with suicides. Yet, the woman from a village on the outskirts of Mysuru recently attempted to end her life.

Residents of her village, gripped by anxiety over the spread of COVID-19, had erected fences with branches of trees that not only restricted entry of outsiders into the village, but also the movement of locals. Almost overnight, the village with 40 houses had been separated by fences arbitrarily put up even on small roads.

Three days before July 10 when she attempted to die by suicide, Ms. Shobha was walking back home from her field and encountered a fence blocking her path. She removed a portion of the fence to reach her house, but her act incensed the villagers, who not only scolded her, but called for a panchayat meet in the village. Her husband was summoned and asked to apologise for her behaviour, which amounted to breaking the rules of the village that had been framed to control COVID-19. Her husband felt humiliated and scolded her. Pained, she retreated to her room, locked herself up and attempted suicide.

This case of attempted suicide figuring in the JSS Academy of Higher Education and Research (JSSAHER)’s Digital Journal of Clinical Medicine seeks to demonstrate how social factors during the pandemic are beyond the conventional risk factors for suicide, said Kishor M., a psychiatrist who was part of the study.

Dr. Kishor said risk assessment in case of suicide or suicide attempts involves looking at past history of such attempts, family history of suicides, current and past history of psychiatry illness, medical co-morbidity (like thyroid disorder, epilepsy, etc.) or other recognised risk factors like grief and hopelessness. “This patient did not have any of the risk factors,” he said.

Diagnosed as ‘Impulsive act of deliberate self-harm’, this case seeks to focus attention on the emerging patterns of suicides that mental health experts are grappling with during the pandemic.

The study states that the COVID-19 pandemic has sparked a significant rise in stress at various levels including community, family and individual. “Policy measures have been formulated to address and limit the spread of infection. These measures may have led to heightened vigilance, issue of isolation, limited access to basic necessities and financial stress,” the study said, while Dr. Kishor also referred to the increased risk of suicide owing to financial problems arising out of the pandemic.

Social stigma can occur in disease outbreaks, the outbreak of COVID-19 has caused a lot of fear and panic. “The social distancing that is advocated as a preventative measure to control the spread of infection can be misinterpreted and easily manifest as social discrimination,” the study cautioned.

(Those in distress or those having suicidal tendencies can call Arogya Sahayavani Ph: 104 for help.)


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