Deaths Without Distress: The dramatised portrayal of the Burari case

It has been over a week since the chilling report of “Eleven members of a family found dead under mysterious circumstances in their Burari residence” hit news cycles. Since then the case has been reported 24*7 by national media. The case was shocking and traumatizing for everyone who read or heard about it. The police, unable to find any external intervention, almost ruled out murder and everyone with a mic or internet connection started speculating on the probable causes.

Delhi house of horror: All 11 died of hanging

Each morning brought with it a new theory to millions of Indians who remained glued to their newspaper and television in the hope of making sense/closure of why eleven members of a financially well-off family might have committed suicide. We as a society have a notion that people with financial hardships are more likely to commit suicide as is our justification in the case of mass suicide by farmers in India. This particular case of a financially stable family committing suicide punctures our collective myth. The undeniable fact is that One Indian commits suicide every 4 minutes. The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) suggests that more than 90 percent of people who completed suicides have suffered from usually co-morbid mental disorders, most of them being mood disorders and/or substance use disorders.

From depression to financial struggles, individuals have given up on life after being succumbed to the ongoing crisis in their lives. As disturbing as it sounds, these suicides are a wake-up call in order to have these issues being spoken about. You never know it might save a life.

That’s the thing about suicide. Try as you might to remember how a person lived their life, you always end up thinking about how they ended it.

The Burari case has travelled through media at the rate of a forest fire, and some aspects have been overshadowing others. At Mind Piper- a mental health organization championing the cause of ‘mental health for all’, when we look at all the news reports, we usually find two things in common. The terms, “shared psychosis” and the term “psychological autopsy”, these have usually come up as headlines, among other deviant titles talking about the pipes in the family house and the number of fences.

Burari Case: A closer cook at the mental illness theories

The terms like “shared psychosis” are those that come with the necessary baggage of responsibility and sensitivity. Shared psychosis is a disorder that means one person’s delusions or hallucinations are passed on to their closely associated family or friends. The diagnosis of the same requires a thorough account of all the people involved, this process takes a long time. There have been a few cases of shared psychosis in the past, which have usually dealt with two people living in close and isolated relationships.

Diagnostic Criteria of Shared Psychotic Disorder

A delusion develops in an individual in the context of a close relationship with another person(s), who has an already-established delusion.

The delusion is similar in content to that of the person who already has the established delusion.

The disturbance is not better accounted for by another Psychotic Disorder (e.g., Schizophrenia) or a Mood Disorder With Psychotic Features and is not due to the direct physiological effects of a substance (e.g., a drug of abuse, a medication) or a general medical condition.

The Jefferson Journal of Psychiatry mentions a few such cases. However, they are very different from the Burari case. Other cases are only declared as being affected by the disorder when all parties involved are examined. (This examination includes asking friends and family about their behaviour, checking all previous mental health records, etc. This is known as a ‘psychological autopsy’.) Most of these cases revolve around siblings, or parent-child relationships, where one active psychotic person tends to influence the second passive one. (We have added a link to some of these cases below.) Based on what is know about this case, the circumstances raise a lot of pertinent questions. The one which resonates the strongest is: How did ten educated, high-functioning and social members with of a family buy-in to the delusions of one family member?

We as a mental health organisation , therefore, believe that this diagnose in the Burari case thus is premature, and abuses a severe mental disorder. We are still, as gathered by reports, at no point to make this diagnosis.

In this case, the only evidence that may point towards psychosis is for Lalit, the younger son, which reports claim had visions and hallucinations of his dead father, evidenced from elaborate notes kept in his diary; but not the other ten members about whose mental health we almost know nothing about. Lalit was never treated possibly because the family members didn’t recognize his mental illness. The unfortunate incident also highlights the need to establish mental health services for the common person, who due to taboos associated with the subject are reluctant to seek professional assistance.

Burari Case: The Silent Victims

Amidst all the hullabaloo of this incident, there is one segment that is suffering alone in silence- people who live in close vicinity of the Bansal family and the millions of readers/viewers of this news.

There is panic and havoc among everyone around. It is causing fear and suspicion about the event. In fact, the fear has increased to a point, that some tenants have started leaving the Burari region to temporarily settle elsewhere. This shows that all the fright and trauma about the incident, is manifesting itself within the people around. There is a state of paranoia. A local of this area, Amit, who lives a stone’s throw away from the site of the accident simply said, “Ab toh darr hee lagta hai sabko, raat hote hi lagta hai ki vo jo beech umar mein mar gaye vo kuch toh chahte honge. News mein hee suna hai jo suna hai, usse sabko darr sa lag gaya hai.”

Thus it is easy to see that the reports being circulated by the media are not helping the case, but only increasing the havoc it has created. The media has also talked about theories around the case, such as the eleven ‘mysterious’ pipes in the house and the eleven fences. Dramatised reporting of this tragic incident only perpetuates the fear around it instead of offering a solution to the panic. Media is also a continuous crowd at the site now, hardly allowing any local the space to take a breather from the event, and get some much-needed distance. Because it is difficult for anyone to be so closely and continuously engaged with such a traumatic event.

Mental health is a precarious space. And to be able to sustain through this chaotic event, we have to make space for healing. How do we do that? We do that by letting the people affected have a voice. Our voices shouldn’t be downtrodden amidst the many layers of this case. Our fears need to be heard and addressed. And as readers and listeners, this is our responsibility too. The voices of silent victims shouldn’t be lost amidst the many layers of this case. And terms that are heavy and denote things we might not be sure of, should not be used by the media to make something sensationalized.

This case will take its time being solved, and assumptions will not help that pace. These incidents if handled carefully can offer the space to process fear. This traumatic event calls for empathy and patience, and that is what our call should be.

In case you want to understand more about shared psychosis, you can find some case histories here.

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