Zobaida, a 16-year-old who sat for her SSC exams in March, was looking forward to the results on Sunday like two million other candidates. As one of the top students in her class, she was confident in her ability and the adulation of the teachers at school enforced that belief.
But the results, while being far from failing, were a disappointment to the girl from Bagerhat. She was awarded a B grade, disqualifying her for the coveted GPA-5.
At night, as her family gradually fell asleep, Zobaida struggled with herself. The result had devastated her. She saw only one course of action – to take poison and end her life.
Earlier on the same day, nearly 600km away in Thakurgaon, Farazul stood trembling as his family berated him for failing in his SSC exams. He then went into his room and hanged himself.
Over the past two days, five students committed suicide and 16 more attempted to after their SSC results were published. The numbers are the only incidents reported against the majority which go unreported to authorities and by the media.
The pressure and expectations surrounding the exams have cultivated an environment which has not been kind to many students. The propensity to commit suicide among students who are unhappy with their results forms only a fraction of the national suicide statistics.
The 2018 numbers
Aside from the recent deaths surrounding the SSC results, scores of suicides reported this year.
According to news reports and hospital sources, there have been 70 cases of suicides reported all over Bangladesh (except Dhaka) from January to April 2018.
In Dhaka, the Dhaka Medical College Hospital recorded 35 cases of suicide, and a further 10 were reported in the city. In the suburbs around Dhaka city, another 10 were also reported.
But police and medical authorities alike say that the numbers are much deflated against real numbers, which could be several times higher.
Few authorities keep track of suicides
The Bangladesh Police are the only authorities who keep track of the suicides in the country. According to their 2017 statistics, on average around 30 people commit suicide every day.
Statistics show that 9,665 people committed suicide in 2010. In 2011 the number was 9,642, in 2012 the number rose up to 10, 108, in 2013 the number was 10,129, in 2014 the number was 10,200, in 2015 the number was 10,500, in 2016, the total number of suicide was 10,600 and the number rose to 11,095 in 2017.
But the police, activists, and experts concur strongly that the actual numbers would be much higher as many incidents go unreported.
Activists believe the suicide rates are higher in rural areas than urban areas.
Joyosree Jaman, convener of anti-suicide campaign Brighter Bangladesh, said: “In rural areas, it is easier to bury bodies by the families and local influential people without much fuss by the authorities. There is not enough surveillance in this field. Our society has yet to accept suicides as a health problem. They are stigmatized heavily, forcing families to hide deaths by suicide.”
The Centre for Injury Prevention and Research (CIRP) conducted a survey – Bangladesh Health and Injury Survey 2016 across 16 districts where they found that suicide topped the list of cause of death, beating road collision, drowning, and electrocution.
The National Institute for Mental Health in 2015 said that some 29 people committed suicide everyday in the country. The number was close to the police statistics. While the NIMH estimate was not made with the latest data, the police figures showed the number has risen over 30 since then.
Why are suicides so prevalent?
Experts said in general the reason behind most of the suicide attempts are issues ranging from depressive disorders, bipolar disorders, anxiety disorders, alcohol and other substance abuse, schizophrenia and other psychoses, personality disorders, aggression, impulsivity, and hostility, hopelessness, heredity, childhood trauma, past attempts, and ideation.
Bangladesh Society for the Enforcement of Human Rights (BSEHR) Executive Director Mostafa Sohel Ahmed said impulsivity – hopelessness among youths, drug abuse, childhood trauma and past attempts and ideation are the leading causes of suicide attempts.
Zia Rahman, chairperson of the Department of Criminology at Dhaka University, said these fatal incidents are linked with mental depression and mental instability following several issues like unemployment, social insecurity, romantic failure, and family dispute.
Joyosree Jaman also noted the rise in digital technology and their adverse effects as a major factor in the rise of suicide rates. She said most young people fail to control difficult situations which arise from incidents over social media.
Also, the unavailability of counselling and lack of awareness aggravates mental issues and increase the likelihood of suicide attempts.
Prof Kamruzzaman Majumdar, head of the Department of Clinical Psychology at Dhaka University, said the lack of support from families and communities is another major source of concern.
He said: “Many people believe their suffering is permanent and the only way to end their misery is by taking their lives.”
More Bangladeshi women commit suicide than men
In contrast to most Asian countries, the suicide rates lean more towards women than men in Bangladesh.
According to the police, around 7,671 women died unnaturally between 2012 and 2017. Among them, 3,444 incidents took place at their parents’ homes while 3,927 incidents occurred at their in-laws’.
In contrast, about 9,212 men were victims of unnatural death. But accidents contributed heavily to the number.
However, the BSEHR said around 1,374 women committed suicide between 2014-2017 whereas 696 men committed suicide in the same period. The BSEHR based its statement on the reports from eight national dailies.
Professor Tahmina Akhter of the Social Welfare Department at Dhaka University said women who commit suicide could be divided into three major age groups.
Firstly, teenagers who are emotional and strongly susceptible to negative inputs. They were found committing suicide over romantic failures, family disputes, failing exams, or rebuking by parents.
For married women, family disputes and insecurity in the workplace was the leading cause.
For elderly women, depression and loneliness were the key factor.
Joyosree Jaman highlighted the lack of proper women empowerment and a skewed view towards women contributing to the rise in suicide attempts by women.
She further added that the worst is the existing data might be able to provide a clear indication of more women committing suicide but it cannot be supported by any scientific data or research which could be used to formulate counter-suicide measures.
Bangladesh among top countries in suicide rates, far behind in support
In 2014, the World Health Organization published a report titled “Preventing suicide: A global imperative” where it noted that suicide rates worldwide had fallen. Bangladesh ranked 10th on the list; with nearly eight suicides for every 100,000 people.
The WHO developed an action plan to further reduce global suicides by 10% by 2020. Many countries proceeded to introduce measures and projects to help reduce suicides, but unfortunately Bangladesh was not among them.
Despite the fact that in 2014, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had directed an institution dedicated to studying suicides to find a way to resolve them be set up, the project has yet to see the light of day.
There are no government institutions which support people who struggle with issues which may lead to suicide. There are no helplines.
The only assistance comes from private NGOs like Kaan Pete Roi, the country’s first emotional support centre helpline. Kaan Pete Roi has listed 22 facilities in Dhaka city where people can find support, including educational institutions and clinics.
Joyosree Jaman said the Bangladesh government does not observe the International Suicide Prevention Day and stressed its importance in creating awareness among people.
Police sources said suicide cases are dispatched to hospitals or merely recorded if family members proved unwilling to allow for autopsy.
Abdullah Al Numan, SM Shamsur Rahman, and Zakir Mostafiz Milu contributed to this report