More Suicides in the Land of Happiness
Bhutan, the small Himalayan kingdom squeezed between two large countries of the world India and China, is known as the land of Gross National Happiness. Abbreviated as GNH it is a philosophy of the government of Bhutan that includes an index which is used to measure the collective happiness and well- being of a population rather than the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the rest of the world including its two neighbouring rising economic powers. But recently the Buddhist nation and one of the most peaceful countries in the world is witnessing a rising trend of suicide mostly related to socio-economic factors.
The year 2022 witnessed 112 Bhutanese individuals succumbing to the clutches of despair, a substantial rise compared to the previous years. The numbers for 2021, 2020, and 2019 were equally distressing at 100, 105, and 105 suicides, respectively. Based on 2011 data, the official suicide rate of Bhutan was 16.2 per 100,000 people. This figure ranked the kingdom as the 20th-highest suicide rate in the world, and 6th uppermost in the Asia-Pacific region. The number of recorded suicide deaths has increased by around 50% for some years in the small country. It is indeed a painful and jarring reality that an average of 100 Bhutanese take their own lives every year.
As the Royal Bhutan Police records document the grim statistics, the figures are more than mere numbers considering the small population. But even these high figures might be on the lower side and the actuals are more. As the country adheres to Tibetan Buddhism for its state religion, even mere discussion of suicide and the means of tackling it have been generally seen as socially taboo. It is an irony that under Bhutanese law, the act of committing suicide is itself not illegal, but abetting a suicide is regarded as a crime. Autopsies are not done in Bhutan, and thus the actual suicide rate is likely to be much higher than the official data. Some suicides are also reported as “accidental deaths”.
One crucial factor to consider is the rapid pace of societal change and modernisation for such a dangerous trend. For a long time, the internet, mobile phones and even television was not allowed in the Kingdom, depriving people from knowing the fast developments in the world. But now it is one of the most wired countries.
But while Bhutan has embraced development, the accompanying challenges have left some citizens feeling disconnected, isolated, and unable to cope with the demands of an ever- changing world. In some cases, incomes have increased and so also consumption. The traditional sense of community and support, once the bedrock of Bhutanese society, is eroding, leaving some individuals feeling adrift and alone. Moreover, the relentless pursuit of material wealth and comparison with others, driven by globalization, has seeped into the collective psyche. This has left many with a sense of inadequacy and worthlessness. Lack of job opportunities, the percentage of broken families, and a high rate of domestic violence are considered to be major contributing factors.
The pressure to conform to societal expectations can be suffocating, particularly for the youth who may feel overwhelmed by academic or career pressures, leading them to see suicide as the only escape. Another critical aspect to explore is the impact of mental health stigma. Now there is a demand that the country must be ready to engage in difficult conversations and foster an environment where mental health is prioritised, destigmatized, and given the attention it deserves. For too long, mental health issues have been brushed aside, considered a sign of weakness in Bhutanese culture. Bhutan watchers feel a multi-faceted approach is required, combining preventive measures, mental health awareness campaigns, improved access to professional counselling services, and a rekindling of the sense of community and support that once defined Bhutanese society. There is a demand that fostering Gross National Happiness goes beyond just economic growth; it is about nurturing the well-being of every Bhutanese citizen, addressing their emotional needs, and ensuring that they find purpose, hope, and belonging in their lives.
While Bhutan considers itself to be one of the contented countries the World Happiness Report which does rankings of national happiness usually puts it to be among the lowest ranking in the happiness index despite its GNP. The report is a publication of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a UN global initiative of the United Nations which again has adopted GNP as a goal and model for other countries. NGO Human Rights Watch which did a study on Bhutan also said most of its people live in grinding poverty, high corruption, rapid spread of diseases such as AIDS and tuberculosis, gang violence, abuses against women and ethnic minorities, shortages in food/medicine, and economic woes. Because Bhutan is still a closed society many such things do not come out, it argues.