Why suicide in Pakistan becoming more common?

Pakistan, like other Muslim societies, has had low suicide rates but this may be changing -especially in the urban areas. A young researcher tries to answer employing Emile Durkheim's work on suicide. Interesting read for students of sociology!

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The suicide rates in Pakistan are much lower than the worldwide average. However, it is quite difficult to determine accurate suicide rates in a country like Pakistan. There are several reasons for it: suicide is not allowed in Islam, (considered haram in Sharia), has been socially stigmatised and is in fact illegal under the Pakistan penal code. There is no formal compilation of national suicide statistics that are sent to the World Health Organisation (WHO) nevertheless the country’s suicide rate was reported by Wikipedia, citing Global Economy.com, to be around 1.4 deaths per 100,000 people while the global rate was 6.4 per 100,000 inhabitants.

Suicide in Pakistan, Wikipedia

So, it is not difficult to see that traditionally the suicide rates, in Pakistan, have always been low, less than one fourth of global average. Nevertheless, from reports in Pakistani papers, and media it appears that in recent years there has been a steep increase particularly among the students.

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Emile Durkheim, the famous French sociologist, renowned for his 1897 seminal monograph, “Le Suicide (1897)” – a study of suicide rates in Catholic and Protestant populations – believed that suicide Is not something related to individual’s mental health but to his or her society. The results showed that though there wasn’t much difference between the annual rates of suicide, in a social order, there were large differences between different societies. Durkheim’s theory was that within those societies that had a strong support system, such as within religious societies, there were less deaths by suicide however in those societies where the support systems weren’t as strong there were higher numbers of suicide. This, according to him, was related to levels of anomie – when a person detaches himself from society – that directly affects suicides. This could thus explain the historically low levels of suicide within Muslims. Durkheim had himself argued: “Religion protects man against the desire of self-destruction”.

Emile Durkheim, French Sociologist, Wikipedia

Why does this trend, of low suicide rates, seems to be changing then? Well possibly because of the very reasons that Emile Durkheim explained. Even Pakistan’s Muslim society is changing, and its support systems are getting weaker. There are multiple reasons for why this is happening.

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Families are simply not as close knit as they used to be thus reducing the strength of the support system and increasing anomie – detachment of the individuals from their social system. For example, during the 19th century it was common for levirate marriage – when the widow would marry her deceased husband’s brother – to be practiced in Islam, other Abrahamic religions and even non-Abrahamic faith systems like Hinduism across South Asia. This practice served as a protection for the women and children and the family would be providing support. This sort of collective comprehensive social safety net is fast disappearing even in countries like Pakistan.

There has also been an accelerating rate of urbanisation within the country. Between the 30 years of 1951 to 1981 the population living in urban areas quadrupled, and in 1994 32% of Pakistanis lived in urban cities. This process started of with workers moving to cities – like Karachi, Lahore, Faisalabad, Rawalpindi etc – to make money to send to their families and eventually more of the family would move over to new unfamiliar cities and towns. This process would however isolate them and weaken their traditional rural support system.

Another big factor related to modernity and urbanization is increased competitiveness for the individual. In today’s world – of which Pakistan is increasingly a part – academic success, right job, and material success have assumed far greater importance in terms of defining who we are. Two generations ago, there was greater acceptability across South Asia of one’s station in life. Today it is not. Especially in the urban centres where young men and women have to prove themselves in front of their contemporaries their families and local communities to earn the respect. That identity battle has also spread out to become national or international for professionals who do medicine, finance or Accounting etc. This struggle for self-respect demands even more “social support” and understanding but sadly less is available. As I mention above these pressures are far more in urban areas; no wonder then that the highest rate of suicide in Pakistan is in Karachi (almost 25% of national share) followed by Lahore (22%) and Islamabad (17%).

Last but not least there has been an increase upon deciding the status of someone through their material possessions. Though there have always been upper and lower classes within society before it was determined by to whom you were born. If you were born to someone with a large size of land holding you were upper class otherwise you were lower class and each generally accepted, it. However, we know live in a world where more and more people can afford material desires to showcase wealth and there is a higher amount of pressure to achieve material goods that it can be overwhelming especially for those who can’t afford it.

Maya Natasha Pirzada is an O-Level student at Preparatory School Islamabad studying French and doing research on the works of French sociologist Emile Durkheim. She tweets @MayaPirzada

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