COVID-19: How social stigma is leading to suicide of patients in rural areas

50-year-old Narasimha had isolated himself and took the extreme step allegedly because his neighbours accused him of 'bringing doom' to the village.
Carrying young children a couple covered with facemasks walking on a road
Carrying young children a couple covered with facemasks walking on a road

On May 8, 50-year-old Narasimha*, who lived in Damargidda mandal in the rural district of Narayanpet in Telangana, took his own life. Narasimha, who was under home isolation after contracting COVID-19, allegedly took his own life because his neighbours accused him of “bringing doom” to the village.

“For four days, he was completely active. He was having his medicines and food on time. He showed no symptoms of depression. But when I went to give him dinner on Saturday at 8 pm, I found him dead. I later learnt that some womenfolk in the neighbourhood had made remarks implying that my father is spreading infection in the village,” says Nikhil*, Narasimha’s 26-year-old son. 

Narasimha took the test for the coronavirus at a Primary Health Centre on May 5 and discovered that he was positive. He was a foreman in construction work. He had isolated himself in another house, close to his home. “We were all under the impression that he would get better soon, as he had been taking all the prescribed medicines and food on time. There was no sign of distress,” Nikhil recalls.

Narasimha was a victim of the stigma attached to COVID-19. A rise in suicides associated with COVID-19 has been reported in other states too.

“The social stigma attached to the illness is extremely prevalent in rural villages,” says Kondal Reddy, an agriculture activist who is now engaged in COVID-19 relief work. 

Kondal, who is a grassroot activist working for Rythu Swarajya Vedika, says, “In villages, people help out each other. That is the essence of a village lifestyle. But due to the stigma and fear attached to the virus, people have been boycotting infected people. This is leading to extreme distress among the COVID-19 patients, forcing them to take extreme steps.”

He adds, “Besides the stigma and fear, there is also the problem of monetary aid. For treatment, families need money, and when they are not able to gather enough money, the depressed patients end up taking their own lives."

Nikhil, who is mourning the loss of his father, says, “Even now, we have been ostracised. Nobody comes to our street, even the vegetable vendors. Neighbours who would otherwise come and chat casually, are avoiding us.”

Foreseeing this problem, the Telangana government in July last year, had established a COVID-19 24-hour helpline -- 1800 599 4455 -- for patients under home isolation. The call centre provides counselling, helps in getting medicines, and also reports other issues like ostracisation to the police. 

“Before the lockdown, we had been creating awareness regularly through Chaatimpu (announcement in villages through drums), educating people that COVID-19 is like any other illness, speaking against ostracising people, the importance of practising physical distancing, mask safety etc,” says District Medical Health Officer (DMHO) of Narayanpet, T Bhikshapathi.

The DMHO says that despite the best efforts of the Health Department in creating awareness, there are still instances when people take their own lives. The helpline for Narayanpet district is set up in the Collector’s office, which provides counselling too.

“On an average we receive about 30-40 calls a day, and most of these calls are about what medicines to use, and queries about government isolation centres. The calls about depression and patients showing suicidal tendencies are rare,” he says.

Malathi, a volunteer from Roshni, which is based in Hyderabad and helps people struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts, says, “We have received distress calls from COVID-19 patients suffering from anxiety, but most of them are from urban areas.”

Talking about the severity of stigma prevalent in villages, another rural district DMHO from Nizamabad, Bala Narendra, says, “Social stigma attached to COVID-19 is extreme in rural districts. Only a wide and active awareness campaign will normalise the discussion around the illness.”  

 *Names changed to conceal identity

If you are aware of anyone facing mental health issues or feeling suicidal, please provide help. Here are some helpline numbers of suicide-prevention organisations that can offer emotional suppport to individuals and families.

Tamil Nadu
State health department's suicide helpline: 104
Sneha Suicide Prevention Centre - 044-24640050 (listed as the sole suicide prevention helpline in Tamil Nadu)

Andhra Pradesh
Life Suicide Prevention: 78930 78930
Roshni: 9166202000, 9127848584

Sahai (24-hour): 080 65000111, 080 65000222

Maithri: 0484 2540530
Chaithram: 0484 2361161
Both are 24-hour helpline numbers.

State government's suicide prevention (tollfree): 104
Roshni: 040 66202000, 6620200

SEVA: 09441778290, 040 27504682 (between 9 amd and 7 pm)

Aasara offers support to indviduals and families during an emotional crisis, for those dealing with mental health issues and suicidal ideation, and to those undergoing trauma after the suicide of a loved one.
24x7 Helpline: 9820466726

Click here for working helplines across India.


Related Stories

No stories found.
The News Minute