From the outside, V.G. Siddhartha was known as the founder and owner of the hugely successful coffee chain, Café Coffee Day, with nearly 1700 branches in India and abroad. But when his body washed ashore on the banks of the river Netravati in Mangaluru on Wednesday morning, people all across the country were left searching for answers as to what pushed Siddhartha, popularly known as the Coffee King, over the edge, prompting him to take that fatal plunge.
“His death was preventable,” tweeted a psychiatrist-friend, adding that “he suffered from depression; felt guilty, depressed, hopeless, worthless; sought help from his many acquaintances. But no one focused on his condition and treatability. He gave many clues about his distress.” In her book, Death is Not the Answer, renowned psychiatrist Dr Anjali Chhabria attempts to understand suicides and how they can be prevented. “Almost everyone who commits or attempts suicide has given some clue or warning before,” she states.
Driven to despair
So why did an educated, rich and successful entrepreneur with access to medical help not seek it? Dr Chhabria points out that when the affected person fails to reach out or when friends and family fail to read the tell-tale signs, it’s easier to understand why individuals succumb to despair.
“Two-thirds of the people who attempt suicide can be helped but are not because of a lack of understanding among the general populace and the stigma attached to seeking psychiatric support. Most who kill themselves have spoken about it before, and should be taken seriously. The suicidal triad is when you feel worthless and helpless,” she explains, describing some of the warning signs that precede most suicides.
“People contemplating suicide really do not want to die, and awareness about early signs and symptoms, followed with timely intervention, can save them. Suicidal thoughts must be treated as a medical emergency. Looking out for any drastic or subtle changes in mood patterns (mood fluctuations), reduced interest level in daily activities, reduction in communication, tendency to stay aloof more than usual, and observing unusual behaviour could help detect warning signs,” she says.
Focus on mental health
V. G. Siddhartha’s letter to the Board of Directors and his CCD family that he had “failed to create the right profitable business model despite my best efforts”, draws attention to the importance of mental health and well-being.
In fact, the Coffee King’s suicide note reads, “I fought for a long time but today I gave up as I could not take any more pressure from one of the private equity partners forcing me to buy back shares, a transaction I had partially completed six months ago by borrowing a large sum of money from a friend. I could not take any more pressure...”
It is mainly due to lack of awareness, misconceptions, and a deep rooted stigma that many lives are lost. “The first reaction that one gives to a mental health patient is of shock. ‘Why would you go to a psychiatrist or a psychologist? Are you going crazy?’ These are the usual disparaging statements made towards those who willingly seek help,” says Dr Chhabria.
Shrouded in shame and secrecy
Depression is a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest. Even Deepika Padukone, who was at the peak of her career, refused to come to terms that she was suffering from mental depression till she was diagnosed with clinical depression. It was her mother who noticed the tell-tale signs and gave her friend, therapist and transactional analyst, Anna Chandy a call.
Talking about the taboo that goes with mental health and the very serious implications of brushing things under the carpet, psychiatrist Dr Purnima Nagaraja, says, “Public humiliation and the fear of being badly talked about is something that topples such people. But it’s imperative that we watch out for signs of depression. While self-introspection can also help, no one takes help during depression for fear of being looked down in the society.”
“Those in the public eye are always under social pressure. We expect them to have a lot of resilience but nobody ever knows what they are going through. But when the going gets tough, entrepreneurs can suffer from mass depression. Chronic stress leads to poor decision making, poor cognitive skills and memory loss too. People who have mass depression have a suicidal tendency. But it takes a lot of courage to commit suicide. There are chances that even family members and friends don’t understand depression,” adds Dr Purnima.
Pressure and public humiliation to blame?
According to reports, Siddhartha’s letter says there was a lot of “harassment from the previous DG income tax in the form of attachment of his shares to block his Mindtree deal”.
However, an I-T official on condition of anonymity says, “Normally, whenever our officers go for a search or raid, they behave politely. Moreover, there are a group of officers who participate in the raid. But sometimes, when the individual who is raided behaves in a high-handed manner or tries to obstruct our work, our officials can lose their cool.”
But as Dr Prashant Kocherlakota, consultant psycho-pathologist points out, “Mental health issues and suicidal tendencies can certainly be related to hopelessness, financial embarrassment and humiliation.”
On the supposed I-T harassment and why Siddhartha got no support from anyone, Xavier Augustin — Founder & CEO of ta successful venture, Y-Axis Overseas Careers, says, “We should not rush to judgment. There is more to the story that we don’t know and we’ll probably never know. It’s easy to blame someone but one needs to take a holistic view and see why each one played their part the way they did and why one found no other recourse than to end his life.”
Adding that it has turned out to be a terrible twist to one of the most inspiring entrepreneurial journeys, Augustin adds, “Entrepreneurs must be mindful of hubris. The ideal life for an entrepreneur is a harmonious mix of the self, family and work. I would never have imagined that his finances would be in such a muddle one day. As he unwittingly warned us, ‘A lot can happen over coffee’.”...