How We Should Be Talking About Sushant Singh Rajput's Death

In the public conversation that Sushant Singh Rajput’s suicide has precipitated, one can only hope the discourse of mental health will restore some sanity.
Given the reactions to Sushant Singh Rajput's suicide, it seems clear that had he confessed to being mentally ill, we, his audience, would have all failed him.
Given the reactions to Sushant Singh Rajput's suicide, it seems clear that had he confessed to being mentally ill, we, his audience, would have all failed him.

If you or someone you know needs help, call 1800-599-0019 to reach KIRAN, a 24/7 national helpline set by the ministry of social justice. You can also mail icall@tiss.edu or dial 022-25521111 (Monday-Saturday, 8am to 10pm) to reach iCall, a psychosocial helpline set up by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS).

A day after Sushant Singh Rajput took his life, my sister forwarded me a to-do list the actor had hand-written. Of the 50 dreams Sushant had itemised, many were physical. He wanted to train for a triathlon, do a seven-clap push-up and get six-pack abs in six weeks. He wanted to teach coding to the visually impaired and send children to ISRO and NASA for workshops. I was nowhere as fit or philanthropic as Sushant, but I still felt a strange affinity. He wanted to write books, travel Europe by train. Much like my to-do lists, the actor had colour-coded his. We both wanted to exhaust the world.

I didn’t know how to answer my sister’s somewhat wistful question—“How can someone who wanted so much from life suddenly feel it had nothing to offer?”—but by the end of our conversation, we had made peace with the fact that we would never know why Sushant had chosen suicide over flying a plane or learning Morse code. Suicide, I said, was always irrational. No amount of logic could explain an act that did not stop to follow the guidance of reason. It was only a few days later, when my sister called to ask if I was still all right, that my self-preservation instincts kicked in. I muted ‘Sushant’ on Twitter.

Corpses, of course, tell stories, but with the dead not around to speak for themselves, storytelling then becomes the task of obituarists, of family and of friends. In the case of many celebrities, however, strangers, some of them fans, come to want stories that meet their dramatic expectations. Cinema sometimes leads us to believe that death cannot be without cause, and if the deceased is a film star, the hankering for a motive is only exaggerated. In their fight for Sushant, journalists and social media conspiracy theorists have often mistaken his suicide for murder. Suspects have ranged from Karan Johar to his girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty. These speculations invariably leave me feeling sick to my gut.

If suicide is a crime, then Sushant’s therapist Susan Moffat Walker seems to know who did it. Given her recent public statement, it is clear that in the case of Sushant, the most likely suspect was bipolarity, not nepotism or malice. Walker, a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist, told Mojo Story, “Sushant was suffering from bipolar disorder, a severe mental illness that can be crippling for an individual during an episode.” Diagnosed bipolar 13 years ago, I suddenly identified with Sushant , and even though it blurred the line between me and those crusading for justice in his name, I felt I could imagine his turmoil.

Listing the symptoms of bipolar disorder, Walker makes mention of “severe anxiety, major depression and sometimes disordered thinking and paranoia”, but while the psychotherapist’s assessment is urgent, I thought it only scratches the surface of trauma a bipolar patient comes to find familiar. When I was first told that bipolarity is a mood disorder, I had underestimated its extremities. Every few years, when my mind is gripped by hypomania, it starts an upward climb toward a precarious euphoria. My language is nimble and my desire unbridled. I think I can change the world. I feel I can realise 50 dreams all at once. Finding the world obstinate, however, my ecstasy gives way to anxiety and my enthusiasm then becomes paranoia. I soon see all of my remnant recklessness sink in the quicksand of depression.

The highs and lows of bipolarity both bring death closer. When in the throes of mania, I have felt invincible enough to forsake my fears of dying. I have wanted to be a martyr. I once wanted my passing to be a sensational headline. More than anything else, I have wanted to be one with a God I otherwise have trouble believing in. Even though bipolar depression resembles unipolar depression in several ways, it is further marked by a fervent desire for that disruptive but enabling hypomania. For bipolar patients like me, the nostalgia for euphoria comes to make depression feel bottomless. The excess I yearn for also, paradoxically, leaves me guilty. A life of apology can, at times, begin to feel dispensable.

Like any other mental illness, however, bipolarity is not a template. One size never fits all. Sushant and I might have been given the same diagnosis, but a celebrated actor would have, of course, responded to it differently. In her statement, Susan Walker says Sushant was “fearful that someone would have found out”. She also says, “It is often the shame of having [a mental] illness that can drive people to suicide.” Ignorance is almost always hard to disturb. Sufferers of bipolar disorder are often dismissed as unreliable and temperamental. The extravagance of their mania and depression makes it easy to disregard their long stretches of lucidity. Commonly misunderstood, bipolarity may end careers when it becomes public knowledge. Sushant’s fears only seem warranted. Given the reactions to his suicide, it seems clear that had he confessed to being mentally ill, we, his audience, would have all failed him.

Who death leaves behind

Soon after Susan Walker’s statement began doing the rounds on social media, people from several ends of the political-correctness spectrum found themselves appalled. They all seemed to be asking the same questions. Isn’t doctor-patient confidentiality sacrosanct anymore? How dare she out him like that? To me, these criticisms of Walker’s disclosure felt somewhat disingenuous and myopic. By revealing Sushant’s diagnosis, Walker, it felt, was trying to bring back the conversation to mental illness, an elephant in the room too big to be pushed under the carpet. It seemed “recent misinformation and conspiracy theories” forced Walker’s hand. She said it was her “duty” to speak up.

Comparing mental disorders with physical illnesses like cancer and diabetes, Walker urged her listeners to acknowledge that they could “affect anyone”. Rather than divulge details of her sessions with Sushant, Walker campaigned for greater mental health awareness: “The continuing, appalling stigma around mental illness makes it very difficult for patients and their families to reach out for help and support. This has to stop.” The therapist, it soon became clear, was only bringing up the dead to protect the living. As Sushant suffered bouts of major depression and hypomania, Walker said Rhea Chakraborty was his “strongest support”. Rhea, she added, took care of his appointments and gave him courage to attend. As family members often do, Rhea too suffered the cruelty of his mental illness.

Walker’s portrait of Rhea Chakraborty as a loving caregiver does seem to be starkly at odds with the roles some social media users have ascribed to her—manipulator, gold-digger, witch—and Walker’s public praise decidedly disrupts the narrative that the cases lodged against her now suggest. In the FIR filed by Sushant’s father, KK Singh, in Patna recently, he alleged that Rhea had driven his son to suicide by cheating and abandoning him. In his FIR, Singh asks, “Before 2019, my son had no mental health issues, but after coming into contact with Rhea, why did Sushant develop these issues?” Singh also alleges that the doctors Sushant was seeing on Rhea’s recommendation had all conspired against him.

Though the charges levelled against Rhea are serious and must not be taken lightly, many of our news anchors must be reminded that accusation alone is never proof. The innocent need to be proven guilty. Trolls baying for Rhea’s blood should realise that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. In an attempt to mitigate the stress and suffering of the mentally ill, the 2017 Mental Healthcare Act decriminalised attempts to die by suicide. By leaving Section 306 of the IPC untouched, however, the Act did little to help caregivers whose proximity to victims of suicide makes them easy candidates for abetment charges. If there is a body, there need not always be a killer who lurks behind.

Though the charges levelled against Rhea Chakraborty are serious and must not be taken lightly, many of our news anchors must be reminded that accusation alone is never proof.
Though the charges levelled against Rhea Chakraborty are serious and must not be taken lightly, many of our news anchors must be reminded that accusation alone is never proof.

The deaths of others

On October 2, 2008, days after actor Ahn Jae Hwan had gassed himself in his car, South Korean police found actress Choi Jin Sil dead in her apartment. She, too, had died by suicide. It wasn’t hard to deduce the reason that had led to Choi’s death. In her last days, the much-adored actress had been the target of an online smear campaign which painted her out to be a merciless loan shark. Ahn, trolls claimed, had killed himself after Choi had doggedly pressed her colleague to repay a $2 million debt. Twelve years ago, South Korea’s online community was considered the world’s most vigorous and unruly. A senior politician put it like this, “Internet space in our country has become the wall of a public toilet.”

In 2020, India’s online communities have closely come to resemble that of South Korea’s. It’s the hateful hashtag that trends on Twitter first. Divisive messages get more traction on Facebook. As hearsay and rumours get peddled as facts, women routinely suffer more abuse and threats. The fallout from Sushant’s suicide only helps prove each of these inferences. Those advocating foul play and conspiracy seem to have drowned out voices that have been pleading for measure and reason. Sushant’s demise has been a thing to investigate, not mourn. We’ve persecuted more and cared less.

In South Korea, Choi’s death led to a crackdown. Cyber bullies were arrested, while those posting slander were charged. However, when the government wanted to pass a legislation that criminalised online insult, the opposition feared the suppression of free speech. They fought the move tooth and nail. In India, where dissent is now often mistaken for disloyalty, any governmental regulation is fraught with peril, but that said, someone needs to leash the vitriol that Sushant’s suicide has prompted. It endangers the mental health of all those caught in the storm, at its centre and periphery.

“Sushant’s demise has been a thing to investigate, not mourn. We’ve persecuted more and cared less.”

Celebrity suicides have for long been thought of as contagious. Their actions, ordinary and lethal both, are looked to for inspiration. In 1994, for instance, when Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain took his life in Seattle, media houses in the city seemed worried about emulation. In their coverage of the musician’s death, local newspapers and channels often spoke of mental health treatments and suicide prevention. As a result, Seattle recorded even fewer suicides than it usually would. Desperate for viewership, many Indian news channels have emphasised, and in some cases, even glorified suicide by turning Sushant’s death into a veritable murder mystery. By apportioning blame, they have propagated a dangerous notion: suicide is an effect of coercion, not volition. Unlike Seattle, where the pain suffered by Cobain’s loved ones was highlighted, our anchors have only prolonged the trauma of those Sushant held dear.

Tanuja Babre works as the programme coordinator of iCALL, a psychosocial helpline run by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). When I called her recently, she told me that Sushant’s suicide had amplified the distress of several callers, many of who were already finding it hard to cope with the pandemic. I felt fear for those calling in, but this concern was soon eclipsed by optimism. The fact that callers were reaching out for help was heartening. Their suffering, I hoped, could now be diminished.

If anything, Sushant’s suicide proves that none of us, celebrities included, are immune to inner turmoil. Sushant’s ‘50 dreams’ to-do list makes clear that stars mattered more to him than stardom. He wanted to paint Aurora Borealis and explore Andromeda with a telescope. His last film, Dil Bechara, was an adaptation of John Green’s novel, The Fault in Our Stars. While the star metaphor writes itself, it also becomes essential to note that by reducing his suicide to gossip, we have not done right by Sushant. By way of apology, I want to find the actor and tell him the fault lies not in our stars, but in ourselves.

If you or someone you know needs help, mail icall@tiss.edu or dial 022-25521111 (Monday-Saturday,
8am to 10pm) to reach
iCall, a psychosocial helpline set up by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

Shreevatsa Nevatia is the author of ‘How to Travel Light’, a bipolar memoir.