Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent “joke” about a professor’s daughter who died by suicide has irked mental health professionals, who have expressed their disappointment and anger over the insensitive and inappropriate nature of the remark.
Suicide is a serious public health issue that affects millions of people worldwide. It is not something to be joked about, opined doctors.
Speaking to South First, Dr Pankaj Suneja, a psychologist from Gurugram, said, “I think it is very insensitive to make a joke about suicide and sense of hopelessness of an individual.”
What did Prime Minister Modi joke about?
On Wednesday, 26 April, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while addressing a gathering at the Republic TV Summit held in New Delhi, recalled a “joke” from his childhood about a professor whose daughter died by suicide.
Narrating the “joke”, Modi said that the daughter of a professor left a note by her bed explaining her disappointment with life and her decision to throw herself in the Kankaria, a lake in Gujarat’s Ahmedabad. The following day, the professor apparently found the note and exclaimed, “I have been a professor and worked hard for so many years. Yet, my daughter spells Kankaria wrong.”
A video of this was shared on social media went viral. In the video, as soon as the prime minister is finished with narrating this “joke”, it can be seen that not only the prime minister but the audience is also laughing at this.
An ‘insensitive, sadist joke’
Taking to Twitter, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra said, “Depression and suicide, especially among the youth IS NOT a laughing matter.”
She quoted data from NCRB on how 1,64,033 Indians died by suicide in 2021. “Of which a huge percentage were below the age of 30. This is a tragedy, not a joke,” she said.
Depression and suicide, especially among the youth IS NOT a laughing matter.
According to NCRB data, 164033 Indians committed suicide in 2021. Of which a huge percentage were below the age of 30. This is a tragedy not a joke.
The Prime Minister and those laughing heartily at… pic.twitter.com/yoPt5c8Kx7
— Priyanka Gandhi Vadra (@priyankagandhi) April 27, 2023
Reacting to this tweet, woman activist Brinda Adige said, “@PMOIndia You must be ill-informed about the youth who committed suicides. This is no laughing matter. #AccessToMentalHealth support is a shameful challenge faced by young people, women, senior citizens…” she tweeted.
Another Twitterati @IamJavedAshraf said, “Only a person of sadistic mindset can laugh over such a sensitive issue,”
Only a person of sadistic mindset can laugh over such a sensitive issue.
— JavedAshraf Khan (@IamJavedAshraf) April 27, 2023
Why are mental health professionals angry?
“Mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and stress are often cited as risk factors for suicide, along with social, economic, and cultural factors. It is a failure of institutional and non institutional system. Lack of support from government and families are reasons behind depression and suicides. Joking about this means joking at the systematic failure of institutions,” said Lenin Raghuvanshi, Founder and Convenor, Peoples’ Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR) from Varanasi, told South First.
Mental health experts said that it is disappointing to see that a person in a position of power and influence, such as the prime minister, would make such a flippant remark about a tragic event like suicide.
“Such jokes not only trivialise the issue, but also perpetuate harmful stereotypes about mental health and suicide,” said a mental health expert from Bengaluru, who didn’t want to be named.
Adding to this, Dr Pankaj said, “The jokes and casual indifference towards experiences of despair would further shun people fighting depression or suicidal thoughts, off from finding a safe space or empathetic listening ear.”
The experience of suicide and depression needs a safe container of care, so that person feels understood and can bear the heaviness of painful experience.
He added, “When public figures make a joke about it, then there goes a message that it is shameful to talk about suicide sensitively. It further adds stigma to mental health issues and people are less open to seek help, support or talk about their experience. It creates a community that lacks in empathy and shames suicide, which is harmful for the society.”
“People attempt suicide not to end their lives but their pain. They think ‘no one really understands’ and we prove them right by being insensitive,” said Sunny Joseph, a Bengaluru-based clinical psychologist.
Experts opined that as a society, we need to work together to create a safe and supportive environment for people who are experiencing mental health issues, and we need to recognise that suicide is a complex and multifaceted issue that requires a comprehensive approach to prevention and intervention.
(If you need support or know someone who has suicidal thoughts, please reach out to your nearest mental health specialist or can contact the helpline numbers of suicide prevention organizations that can offer emotional support to individuals and families. Tamil Nadu State health department’s suicide helpline: 104 Sneha Suicide Prevention Centre – 044-24640050 Vandrevala foundation for mental health – 999966555.)