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A symbolic picture of female suicides in India. A woman from Allahabad city is seen covering her face
Housewives accounted for 14.6% of the total 153,052 recorded suicides in the South Asian nation in 2020Image: Ritesh Shukla/imago images
SocietyIndia

Why are so many Indian housewives killing themselves?

Murali Krishnan New Delhi
December 20, 2021

The increasing number of suicides among housewives paints a grim picture of the state of women's mental health in the world's second-most populous nation. The COVID pandemic has only compounded the problem.

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In April last year, two women who had lost their loved ones to the coronavirus pandemic  killed themselves in India's central Madhya Pradesh state.    

Devastated by the death of her mother, one of the women died after jumping from her high-rise apartment in an industrial township in Raisen district. 

In Dewas city, some 200 kilometers (124 miles) away, another woman ended her life on the same day after three members of her family died of COVID-19 within a week.

"Both these women were married. They were already suffering from undiagnosed and untreated depressive illness. The pandemic just exacerbated their condition," a social worker from the Jeevan Suicide Prevention Helpline told DW.

A suicide every 25 minutes

These are not isolated incidents.

The number of housewives taking their own lives is on the rise in India, with the recently released data by the government's National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) showing that 22,372 housewives took their own lives last year. This amounts to an average of 61 suicides every day or one every 25 minutes.

Housewives accounted for 14.6% of the total 153,052 recorded suicides in the South Asian nation in 2020 and more than 50% of the total number of women who killed themselves.

Globally, India reports the highest numbers of suicides, with Indian men making up a quarter of global suicides, while Indian women account for 36% of all global suicides in the 15-39 age group.

COVID worsens the problem

Observers and women's rights groups point to a host of reasons such as domestic violence, early marriages and motherhood as well as a lack of economic freedom.

The situation has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and related lockdowns, which restricted public movement and opportunities for women to  express themselves and connect with others.

In cases of domestic violence, many women were stuck with their abusers. "During COVID, we saw a spike in domestic violence, and safety nets and protective factors reduced. Because of loss of jobs, there was less autonomy among housewives and this led to more work, less rest and time for themselves," Nelson Vinod Moses, founder of the Suicide Prevention India Foundation, told DW.

Anjali Nagpal, a renowned psychiatrist who specializes in mental health and behavioral sciences, also stressed that COVID aggravated the situation. 

"Pre-COVID, people could avoid confrontation by going out, and had various ways of deflecting and distracting themselves. This in a large way resulted in people coexisting peacefully, even if in an avoidant manner," Nagpal told DW.

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Women face stigma and shame

Few women in India who suffer from depression and anxiety seek professional help, partly because of the shame and stigma attached to mental health problems. Many women do not feel free to talk openly about their feelings and experiences.

A lack of public awareness and poor understanding of depression have further contributed to the problem, said psychiatrist Tina Gupta.

"Expressed thoughts of suicide or immense hopelessness, helplessness or worthlessness are indicators that were clearly missed among cases of suicide in the last year," Gupta told DW.

"Housewives, being a group that is less aware, and financially dependent on other family members for treatment opportunity, are left to struggle alone with depression and anxiety. Hence a greater suicide rate was seen among Indian housewives," added Gupta.  

Society needs change

To counter the problem, experts say there has to be increased female participation in the workforce as well as greater connection to family, friends and community, and increased social support and financial independence.

Moreover, there needs to be a change in how society treats women, said Moses.

"We should wake up to the fact that the burden of nonstop caregiving, loss of identity, and not enough support from family or friends is a serious mental health issue," he stressed.

If you are suffering from serious emotional strain or suicidal thoughts, do not hesitate to seek professional help. You can find information on where to find such help, no matter where you live in the world, at this website: https://www.befrienders.org/.

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

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