Trigger Warning: The following article contains mention of suicide and trauma. Readers’ discretion advised.
Netflix’s latest crime documentary, House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths, revisits the shocking mass suicide of 2018 where 11 members of the Bhatia family died by suicide on July 1, 2018, in, Burari, Delhi.
The incident sent shockwaves through the community because of the nature of the crime and the sheer unexpectedness of it.
After all 11 family members, belonging to different age groups, and with different personalities and educational qualifications, undertook a deadly ritual of hanging themselves, with the belief that they would attain salvation, not death.
As the infamous diaries stated, the members were expected to untie each other after the ritual ended. The reality, of course, was different and deadly, as not a single family member survived the hanging.
The documentary attempts to understand and explain what went so wrong that a seemingly “happy family” decided to undergo such a deadly ritual. And as the documentary peels apart the layers, it reveals that one of the major reasons was not treating mental health issues.
According to the documentary, Lalit Bhatia took on the role of the family patriarch after the death of his father and believed that he was being visited by his dead father. The family shared this belief because of a series of circumstances, that pointed to Lalit apparently having a greater insight into what could help the family flourish.
What was overlooked was how deeply Lalit was affected by the death of his father. Additionally, Lalit suffered from a traumatic, near-death incident in the past where the trauma led him to lose his voice. And yet, he was never treated for the severe PTSD that he so clearly suffered from.
Because things like trauma counseling, grievance counseling, and mental health issues, are still not a part of our discussions – within the family, or outside of it. But they need to be.
As psychiatrist Dr. Alok Sareen shares in the documentary, there is a need for such cases and their underlying issues to be discussed openly, and not voyeuristically. Because discussion is the first step towards normalizing the issue.
Even today, people suffering from mental health issues are judged and families often attempt to hi the issue because of the age-old fear of, “log kya kahenge?“. As it happened in Lalit’s case, where even his closest friends were explicitly told to not discuss his accident.
But brushing things under the carpet or ignoring them is not the solution. Much like we seek treatment for physical issues, we need to normalize seeking treatment for mental issues.
We also need to promote the idea of family members having an ally outside of the family. Indian families, especially, consider issues that plague the family as sacrosanct and not a topic of discussion. And while everyone has a right to privacy, to completely restrict someone from talking about a topic is never an ideal approach.
And last, but not least, we need to let go of flawed theories like people with mental health issues look a certain way or exhibit certain symptoms. When it comes to mental health, no two patients are alike and no two people exhibit the same symptoms.
As the documentary and reports suggested, Lalit suffered from deep trauma that presented itself in an insidious manner. And over the course of 11 years, affected those closest to him as well – his family members.
While one may never know what prompted the family members to consider Lalit’s words, or rather his dictations in the diaries, as law, what is clear is that various elements (not talking about family, highly patriarchal set-up, the deep void left by the father’s demise) came together and led to the sad reality.
The documentary can be credited with once again starting a discussion on mental health and highlighting the pitfalls of sensationalizing such cases, rather than awarding them the sensitivity and dignity they deserve. If only, these lessons and insights are not ignored, yet again.
If you or someone you know, is suffering from depression, experiencing suicidal thoughts, or just needs someone to talk to, remember that help is just a phone call away. Reach out to the following helplines in India. BMC mental health helpline: 022-24131212 (available 24X7), Vandrevala Foundation: 186-02662345/180-02333330 (24×7) or AASRA: 91-9820466726 (available 24X7).