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Suicide and Sikhism

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Posted 23-Jun-2010 at 05:46 AM by Admin Singh


"They are all crazy here, a bunch of nuts" says Aman (please bear in mind that this is a fictional name).

I glance over my shoulder to see a well dressed, perfectly coiffed woman screaming obscenities and being led away
by a security guard wearing latex gloves. "You would never think she is crazy," he mutters.

Even though I have been exposed to many things in my career, nevertheless I am taken aback by this comment.

I thought my Friday at work would be an uneventful one until I got that call from my colleague at the other college campus. She informed me that Aman had left a message to say she wasn't doing too well in school. Being a bit surprised, I call her to make sure that everything is okay. Last week she seemed to be in good spirits while we worked on an assignment together.

"I want to kill myself," she says. Even though I am bit perturbed, my training on suicide prevention instantly kicks into high gear and I probe further and ask her how she planned to carry this out. "I am going to swallow 40 aspirins and wait to die; there is nothing in life to look forward to".

I remind myself that this is the time of the semester that we find students in crisis, it happens predictably every month around mid-terms.

Personal issues that have been percolating over time, the stress of endless assignments, group work and exams to study for, can push some students to the edge. This time it could have had disastrous consequences.

Aman agrees to meet with her psychiatrist at a local hospital and I convince her to allow me to meet her there to ensure that she got the help needed. I breathe a sigh of relief, she made my job and her life a little easier, and usually calls of this nature do not always go so smoothly. In rare cases, the police have to be called and students feel betrayed.

My mind races with a million thoughts as I get into my car to drive to the hospital. Even though I have made similar calls in the past, there is nothing routine about responding to someone who wants to end it all.

What glimmer of hope can I offer? How can I use my limited knowledge of gurbani to offer words of solace? What would gurbani say about this?

Surely some people in the times of the gurus, (the ones so blessed to be on earth at the same time) must have suffered from mental health issues? How would the Gurus offer solace to someone so desperate that they felt life was not worth living.

Especially in light of the fact that gurbani often reminds us that the human form has been achieved through suffering and pain, transmigration and the pain of birth and death. That the body is a gift and temple devoted to God and that death is not a choice/ right that we humans exercise. I asked my Guru to guide me.

Aman has been battling depression and schizophrenia for the past 30 years, s he has been in and out of the psychiatric ward more times than she can remember. Her disability is an invisible one, people tell her it's all in her head.

That is true. Chemical imbalances have origins in the brain and there is a genetic pre-disposition as well.

"There is no God. If there was, I would not be here suffering like this".

At that moment, her words weighed heavily on my own shoulders. I have pondered and struggled with this very question myself.

I remember a verse by Guru Gobind Singh that life is a battlefield and that we must leave the earth fighting the good fight.

We all have a cross to bear, I tell Aman, remnants of past lives that affect us in the present one and which we must go to battle with, to overcome. "I must have bad karma" she replies. Karma is neither good nor bad, we as humans attach meaning to it.

"I am going to take pills. If I had the guts, I would jump in front of a subway train but I don't!" Aman offers.

She looks at me and I know at that point she does not really want to die.

People who are suicidal are severely depressed, some may be trying to end the pain, others think that life is futile and their ability to cope is dramatically diminished.

Most people in this situation have made at least one previous attempt. When people are suicidal, they feel helpless and trapped. Their normal coping skills and problem solving abilities may be impaired, preventing them from being able
to think creatively of the many options they have.

One of my future projects is to look at the rate of suicide in our own Sikh community. It does happen but it is a topic we are very uncomfortable discussing. We often dismiss it as fate or karma. I remember many years ago, the sangat was really shaken: a teenager who used to do seva and who attended kirtan classes regularly had killed himself. So very sad, devastating for the family, the pain so unbearable ... so unlike that of a relative lost to age, disease or natural causes.

In retrospect, we wondered about any clues or signs that we could have been more attuned to help this particular individual. People who commit suicide do not fit a mold, they are just as likely to have a psychiatric history or be the honour-roll student who appears to have their ducks lined up in a row. The commonality is that they at some point have cried out for help, sometimes very subtle things such as giving away their favourite belongings, talking of giving up and wishing they were not on
earth. They may begin to withdraw from family and friends and isolate themselves from the world thinking that their support system won't care or will be better off without them.

Aman and I are standing outside the intimidating glass partition that separates the patients from the nursing staff. Security guards are a common sight here since many people do not seek help willingly. After we meet with her doctor, who admits her for the weekend, Aman turns to me and says "Parveen, you are just delaying the inevitable."

Walking away from the hospital, I wonder if I had really helped her. Temporarily yes, but what about the next time? What if she goes through with her plan after being released? I hope for the better.

I breathed a huge sigh of relief when Aman walked into my office on Monday to say she was feeling much better. I write a few quick e-mails to her professors to get extensions for assignments and extra time for exams. This may seem like a small thing but this is the glimmer of hope applied in practical terms. I caution myself to check-in with Aman on a regular basis, her disability is a permanent one and this type of scenario is likely to play out again.

If you have a family member or friend you are concerned about, please tell them so. You will not encourage thoughts of suicide by just asking this question. You will have a chance to offer some hope to this person and to talk them out of it.
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