Correlation analysis was run to assess and establish a relationship between the variables of difficulties in emotional regulation and suicidal behavior using SPSS-25 software. Shapiro-Wilk’s test of normality established a nonnormal data distribution. As the data were not normally distributed, Spearman’s rank-order correlation was run among participants aged 18 to 30 years. The table.1, highlights that there was a moderate positive correlation between difficulties in regulating emotions and suicidal behaviors, rs (100) = .400, p < .0005.
Descriptive statistics were run among the six domains of the DERS scale, namely, lack of emotional clarity (Clarity), lack of emotional awareness (Awareness), Impulse control difficulties (Impulse), Nonacceptance of emotional responses (Nonacceptance), Difficulty engaging in Goal-directed behaviors (Goals) and limited access to emotion regulation strategies (Strategies). The analysis table no. 2, shows that participants obtained the maximum score in the domain of strategies, followed by goals, nonacceptance and impulse, awareness and then clarity.
Some of the observations from the scores reveal that 28 out of 100 participants (17-female; 11-male) had engaged in suicidal behaviors. These participants scored high in difficulties in emotional regulation, especially in the domains of Nonacceptance, Impulse control difficulties and limited access to emotion regulation strategies, followed by goals, awareness and clarity, indicating the decreasing likelihood of these difficulties. Nineteen of them had past suicidal threats without the intent of dying and low lethality, whereas the other 9 participants had the intent to die with high lethality. All 28 of them indicated their likelihood of future attempts and death by suicide. There were also participants whose scores indicated greater difficulties with emotional regulation in the domains of goals and strategies but no suicidal behaviors or ideations and participants whose scores indicated no difficulty with emotional regulation but the presence of suicidal behaviors and ideations and the likelihood of future attempts and death by suicide. However, the sociodemographics of these participants were similar with graduate educational qualification, unmarried status, upper middle class and family type.
Qualitative Component - Semiotic Analysis Approach
Semiotics is the study of signs and signs using behavior. One of the founders, the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, defines this as the study of “the life of signs within society”. He treated language as a sign-system. His basic semiotic concept of distinction between the two inseparable components of a sign, namely, the signifier and signified, is used as the framework for this study. Additionally, Charles Sanders Peirce’s perspective of categorization of signs as icon, symbol and index is also considered for the analysis. Here, not only the signs but also the conventions governing the use of signs and sign system is studied, where it explores the connotation, denotation and myth associated with certain signs and symbols in the cultural context used by the participants to communicate or express their emotions to the social media audience indicating their vulnerability to suicidal behaviors and understanding the concept of Vaguebooking, if any, using the semiotics.
Based on the responses and scores obtained by the participants in the quantitative component, 15 participants are selected who are categorized into three categories of − 1) Presence of both difficulties in regulating emotions and suicidal behaviors, 2) Presence of difficulties in regulating emotions but no suicidal behaviors, and 3) No difficulties in regulating emotions but presence of suicidal behaviors. After obtaining consent from those participants, their active social media accounts were accessed. As all the participants provided consent for their instagram accounts, the posts from the instagram were chosen from the timeline of June 2020 to February 2021, as the data collection spanned the timespan. The unfortunate event of the COVID-19 pandemic has spun across the living style of people, leading to roller-coaster emotions due to unforeseeable consequences, making vulnerables more prone to their concerns. As the data collection was done during this time period, the responses and posts of the people are highly contextualized to the situation and the concerns that arose during this particular time period. The following are the tables (table 3, table 4, and table 5) of semiotic analysis of three categories of the participants highlighting the signified component that is common among their posts and the common underlying themes that emerged from the same.
From the analysis in table 3, it can be seen that these participants have certain themes in common, namely, interpersonal relationships, intrapersonal relationships, social implications, engagement in religious practices and coping. These participants indicated difficulties mainly in the domain of nonacceptance and impulse control aspects. Their social media posts indicate their attempt to escape from these difficulties by engaging in behaviors mentioned through the signified. However, the component of Vaguebooking is definitely seen where with the expectation of responses from social media audiences, the participants are trying to seek out or express their concerns while creating indirect awareness and directing toward the need to address the concerns at a community level.
Connotation of the Signified – Interpersonal Relationships
Peer support, family support or sharing cordial bonds with partners is a major aspect of one’s life. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic caused a shift in the mode of living, leading to a sudden transformation from offline to online media, affecting not only communication between people but also their work. This time period served as a realization point to many and triggered their vulnerability to emotion regulation difficulties and even to suicidal behaviors. During this period of isolation, which prompted feelings of loneliness, the importance of having peers, family or partner or even proper workgroup cooperation served as an escape route to many where they had someone to share their feelings and emotions with. These significant relationships provided participants with safe or comfortable zones where they could sail through difficult times collectively.
India has prevailed the concept of collectivistic culture since times immemorial. As part of it, the concept of collectivistic harmony, where the sharing of experiences among each other and feelings of togetherness are given importance during difficult times. This is something ingrained as a group think phenomena among several Indians, which can be reflected even among the participants.
Connotation of the Signified – Intrapersonal relationship
Intrapersonal relationships are yet another domain that experienced radical shifts during this pandemic. People generally try to escape focusing on their relationships with themselves either due to some associated anxieties or due to their busy schedule. However, this pandemic provided everyone an opportunity to reflect on themselves and develop an inner healthy relationship. For the same, participants utilized spirituality, religiosity, self-encouragement, self-appraisal and self-reflection that helped them gain awareness of personal space and boundaries and the needs and wants of their inner self. People were caught in a situation where they had to encourage and appraise themselves. The concept of personal space or boundary is always violated, as other people sharing a significant relationship with the individuals perceive it as a threat to their ego, esteem and relationship and hence discourages the same since age-old times. However, in this lockdown where people were strictly home-bound and experienced interference, they understood the importance of having personal space and started working on factors that define their individuality. However, having the realization that this is against the beliefs held by society, they tried seeking validation through others. People are currently gradually realizing the needs for individuality due to the vast exposure and education of Westernized concepts but are reluctant to voice out due to the fear of oppression and other communal violence. However, the pandemic was an opportunity to disprove all such hypotheses. In addition, it also highlights the notion of collective experiences or the similarity of experiences due to ingrained cultural values and learning.
India, as a collectivistic culture, has always overlooked the concept of individuality. As a result, people learn to prioritize the external strokes they receive rather than the internal strokes. The concept of collective experiences is considered ideal, whereas individuality is considered to degrade the values held by Indian society. Hence, any such effort by an individual is considered a threat and is responded negatively either with suppression or violence by the strong believers or superior members of the community, which is even though a sad reality, especially in rural society, it prevents other people from different part of the society to also not voice out or make an effort for the same.
Connotation of the signified- Social implications
Society, as a whole, has its own expectations from individuals in terms of their adherence to certain beliefs, values, norms and appearances. Every individual has a desire to fit into their in-groups and favors group conformity. Impression management techniques and religiosity have been means for participants for the same. However, some also used humor on stereotypes and prejudices, along with self-criticisms to highlight this aspect. However, dissonance could be noticed through such posts where the phenomena of Vaguebooking are clearly reflected. The participants are expecting to see if anyone else does relate or share any similarity to their thought process, tracing back to the notion of need for collective efforts as preached by cultural learning, which is unconsciously deeply ingrained among the mindset of people.
The postmillennial generation youth are aware of several social concepts that restrict their autonomy due to membership in a certain culture or group. However, the fear of voicing out opinion still persists among many, as it is viewed under negative light by society. It is considered a violation of traditionally or culturally prevailing values, which is strongly opposed by powerful members of society. In addition, the notions of collective concepts can be seen dominating the outlook of people in viewing any situation.
Connotation of the Signified – Coping activities
Every individual has their own threshold to withstand distressing situations. As a result, everyone resorts to certain activities that can help them cope by providing distraction to their in-build negative energy. Participants engage in activities such as expressive arts, substance consumption, approval gained through social media, altruistic acts, being hopeful and developing optimistic resolution. Expressive arts have a scientific understanding of being coping activities, as it helps individuals channelize their energy productively. Gaining approval is a means of validation that helps them feel that their feelings and emotions are valid. Altruism has always helped people feel good, even proven by various studies. Apart from that, being hopeful and making resolutions provides people with directions for their future that indirectly serve as a means of intrinsic motivation. Indian culture always withholds the value of helping others in the context of karma philosophy. It believes that by doing good, you gain good. This highlights the thought process of the people behind noble deeds as a means of coping. Gaining approval or validation indicates a similar mindset or similarity in experiences, which boosts confidence among people and helps them cope with situations.
Substance consumption is something most commonly reported by people to cope with difficult times, as it temporarily numbs them in providing relief. Even though people are aware of the consequences, they still happen to follow the same pattern. Apart from this, most coping activities remain universal among people either as a result of group think or individual preferences or peer influences. The traditionally prevailing concepts are always given importance as learning starts at home. The karma concept is one such. However, it is true that no harm should be inflicted on others, but the cognitions behind the thought process highlight the culturally prevailing learnings.
From the analysis of the table 4, the themes of interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships were found to be common among the groups holding the same significance. However, the significant components include self-sufficiency and self-exploration activities, whose significance again traces back to the realization of the importance of individuality. One theme that is found to be different among this group is the thought process or cognitions. This group has scored high in the domains of having limited access to emotion regulation strategies and difficulty engaging in goal-directed behaviors. The theme of the thought process highlights this aspect, where these people are found to focus majorly on the past rather than their present or future and tend to explain unfortunate events through external attributions. These are some of the aspects that contribute to hindering individuals’ ability to strategize and keep them from thinking about the future, which makes it difficult to engage in goal-directed behaviors. However, the phenomena of Vaguebooking are found to be significant.
Connotation of the Signified – Thought process/Cognitions
Appreciation of available resources, reflecting on good memories, are positive aspects of an individual’s cognitions. It not helps them gain confidence but also helps them feel optimistic and hopeful about the future. It is said that people realize their fortunes only when it is taken away from them. This pandemic provided hands-on experience of the same. It at least helped people realize and appreciate the resources they have in life and reflect on good and positive aspects that can help them keep going through tough times. External attribution is something people commonly engage in when they happen to experience an unfortunate event, as it helps them feel satisfied regarding their nonparticipation in the event. However, owing up to mistakes is not something that everyone does, either due to the threat to their ego or esteem, and helps them escape guilt feelings. Even though the outbreak of the pandemic is external, its spread is something that could be curbed but is unsuccessful due to people’s ignorant attitude. In addition, even though the situation has definitely contributed to many unfortunate crisisful events, attributing everything to it is one of the defenses that helps people avoid anxious feelings that comes by facing their reality.
External attribution easily explains where people have the tendency to externalize the blame of unfortunate events on something else that helps them escape guilt feelings and perceive themselves under positive light. This is something that is even among people irrespective of their cultural origins. However, modeling such tendencies starts right from the family peers or media that individuals are exposed to on a daily basis.
From the analysis of table 5, this group of participants also shared certain similar aspects of social media engagement. The themes of interpersonal relationships, intrapersonal relationships and coping remain the same as those of other categories. However, only differences could be seen in terms of their attitudinal modifications, and the coping activities used by this group of people are slightly unconventional filled of adventurous and extensively sportive activities, along with perspective on self-grooming and behavioral appearances,
Connotation of the Signified – Attitudinal modifications
These groups of participants indicated certain modifications in their outlook since the pandemic. They highlighted the reality check of death and suffering, which is inevitable. Due to the perception of the whole event negatively, they engage in pessimistic evaluation of every situation they are in and deny looking at the other part of the story, highlighting their rigid cognitions. However, some participants also indicated hope for optimism based on the way the world is trying to balance and get through the situation. Sometimes, people tend to live in denial due to the anxiety they face due to suffering. However, this pandemic has exposed everyone to their vulnerable sides, which provided reality checks, as suffering is inevitable. However, people with rigid mindsets tend to overlook the positives of the situation and engage in pessimistic evaluations of the situation, which is clearly reflected in this context.
Cultural learning always highlights positive aspects and relates everything negative to punishment or death. The concept of death is viewed negatively rather than viewing it from different perspectives. Due to the negative connotations associated with death, its reality is often avoided or denied. However, there are scriptures that believe in the concept of after-life, but the skepticisms regarding the concept leave people with disdain and make them deny it to avoid any negative emotions.
There are certain aspects that are universal among individuals in regard to social media engagement. The theme of interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships is common among different groups, highlighting its significance in their lives. As all the participants have the same cultural origin, it can be attributed to group think phenomena. The COVID-19 pandemic has been eye-opening to individuals in many aspects. It not only made the individuals aware of their individuality but also provided them with a sense of supportive community. It made people aware of their relationships with others and themselves. It cannot be denied that cultural background and learning play a huge role in determining an individual’s behaviors. Even though Indian culture views suicide negatively, it still prompts people to take such drastic measures to eliminate their distress for which they do not find any escape, even despite making efforts to seek help either directly or indirectly. In addition, it is taught to individuals to never display the weakest version of self to others, as that is disregarding not only to such individuals but also to their families. Everything a person does is related to the family values. Hence, individuals are always conscious of what they generally choose to share and express. However, there is always a dissonance that makes an individual at least try seeking help or express their concerns indirectly cueing toward the need for modification or correction in that domain. As this task is not easy, especially in the collective context of India, people try to use the cultural values of gaining majority rather than individually voicing out concerns. Hence, validation and approval from others is given at most importance, as seen even through the posts of the participants in the study. All the posts highlight the definite Vaguebooking phenomena, where participants posted things expecting responses from social media audiences. The posts highlight the participants’ domains of the difficulties in regulating emotions and reflect their thought processes and struggles. It is true that it is the choice of participants of what they post or choose to share on social media. Because of the nature of posts, the captions justifying them show their desire to speak up and convey many of their emotional expressions. However, underlying them is the difficulties in their emotion regulation strategies that are also reflected. Although none of the posts directly include any explicit content on suicidal behaviors or attempts, the underlying meaning behind their choice of posts reflects their tendency to share their views and seek help even through superficial relatedness. This not only helps them communicate their feelings and emotions but also helps them express their emotions, feelings and thought process, providing a means for ventilation. However, participants with greater difficulty in emotional regulation and no suicidal behaviors had a relatively lower number of posts than individuals with no difficulty in emotional regulation but suicidal behaviors. However, the participants with difficulty in emotional regulation and suicidal behaviors had a relatively larger number of posts, indicating their tendency to indirectly seek help through social media engagement. Their posts are unique, sometimes reflecting their struggles, their opinions, and the activities they use for coping. As seen and even justified by the literature, individuals with suicidal behaviors or attempts have comparatively frequent social media engagement and sharing of posts when compared to individuals with only emotional difficulties. Even though the themes of their posts remained the same, the captions used reflected their own unique struggles with regulating their emotions. This indicates their encrypted cry for help and the need to address some issues as a community. Hence, it is important to understand the encrypted meaning of the posts and not perceive it as an attention-seeking nature of the person at first glance but rather consider it as something through which individuals are trying to communicate certain concerns that require assistance.
After the data analysis, the results and interpretations were made accessible to the participants in the qualitative phase. An informal interview was conducted to assess the accuracy of the interpretations and ensure the absence of any personal biases. The participants verified and judged the accuracy of the data analysis and ensured no misinterpretations of their posts. Some participants even provided their feedback as they gained insight and were able to relate to the moment in which they were undergoing difficulties with their emotions and feelings and the intention they had behind posting certain status and updates on their timeline. In addition, peer debriefing is also used, where peer debriefer is an expert in qualitative research who critically analyzed the interpretations and posed questions at every step that helped maintain honesty throughout the study.
The results help in understanding social media engagement, the nature of posts, the purpose of posts and the content of the posts frequently used by individuals with suicidal behaviors and difficulties in regulating emotions. It is known that suicidal act is not a sudden or impulsive act. Individuals with suicidal ideations have a definite lack of healthy emotional regulation strategies. Their ideations often begin the moment they fail to gain control over their overwhelming emotions and feelings. Difficulties in regulating emotions are often an indicator that directs toward the necessity of assistance in developing healthy emotional regulation patterns. However, individuals who indicated suicidal behaviors had major difficulty in the domain of nonacceptance and impulse control, which is also reflected through their posts and captions used. The aspect of nonacceptance and impulse control difficulties is making them post certain images, videos or quotes that sometimes can be viewed under offensive light by society as a whole, which the individuals are also aware of and still make their viewpoint explicit. Even though it helps them express their concerns, it makes them look peculiar and odd and often is considered their act for seeking attention. However, it is always important to keep aside personal opinions and judge a situation, where such posts can mean something else as well directing toward cause of distress and concerns that is bothering the individual. In addition, individuals with suicidal behaviors use social media platforms relatively frequently, indicating their tendency to seek help indirectly through their encrypted messages due to prevailing traditional or cultural learning. Having understood this, people should enlighten themselves on this aspect and provide helping hand to such individuals by either assisting them express their concerns or connecting them to professionals at the earliest possible. Social media can also develop a screening method to identify encrypted messages that reflect emotional difficulties and provide them with the earliest available assistance. In addition, teaching families, peers, caregivers and individuals themselves to look out for vulnerabilities is a measure that can be taken at a preventive level. Teaching individuals’ healthier emotional regulation strategies at the school level or university level will be helpful, as it empowers individuals and helps them deal with situations better and makes them equip with skills that can help them tackle distressing situations with better strategies.
The literature suggests a strong positive correlation between difficulties in regulating emotions and suicidal behaviors. However, the moderate positive correlation found in the study can be attributed to the relatively lower sample size of 100 participants. The nonnormal data distribution is also due to the same challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic in the data collection process. The sample size is considerably smaller to make any conclusive statement on the correlation between the variables. In addition, a large number of questions caused dropout of the participants. Semiotic analysis in itself is a vast topic and relatively tiresome process. Hence, the lower sample size of 15 participants, with five from each category, was selected. The member-check process was performed over telephone media because the participant’s behaviors, facial expressions, and gestures could not be captured.
Furthermore, studies can be conducted with greater sample sizes and normal data distributions. The study can be extended to other cultural backgrounds and understand the myth that is associated with certain signs and symbols that are used by individuals to communicate with others. Studies can delve in further to identify certain terminologies that are frequently used by individuals with difficulty in regulating emotions and suicidal behaviors. With this understanding, social media accounts can have improvised technology to filter out such words, locate such individuals and put them in immediate professional assistance available. In addition, studies can aim to extend the knowledge to the general population, where research can then explore the impact of this awareness among the general public and its utility.