As the clock struck 7 that evening, Sudhanshu Mishra got up to leave for home. His afternoon shift had just got over. It was then that the phone rang. The voice on the other side sounded subdued and lost. “I am sick of my life. I want to kill myself,” said the voice, throbbing with pain.
She then narrated her life story — how her parents were forcing her into a marriage with a man she didn’t like; and how helpless she was feeling.
And how she had bought sleeping pills...
“I understand your position,” said an empathetic and concerned Mishra. “Wouldn’t you give me a chance to understand your problems? I wish to meet you tomorrow,” he pleaded with her. The woman agreed and Mishra heaved a visible sigh of relief. It had been a two-hour-long conversation.
Mishra, 35, is an emotional distress counsellor and works as a volunteer with NGO Snehi’s suicide-prevention helpline in south Delhi’s Vasant Kunj. A graduate in psychology, Mishra has been a volunteer with Snehi since 1998 and has handled countless suicide calls. His job is to pull people away from the brink. “Sometimes, it’s enough for a suicidal person to know there is someone willing to listen, that someone is interested in them,” says Mishra. When he is not at Snehi, he runs a private practice as a relationship therapist.
The job requires an ability to empathise and resonate with the inner turbulent world of a person on the other end of the phone line, and convincing him why his life is important. How he talks to a distressed person on the phone depends on the state of the caller’s mind and where he/she is calling from: His house, road, railways tracks. “Many people call from their homes. In fact, home is the most convenient place for people to commit suicide,” Mishra says.
He then goes on to explain the nitty-gritty of suicidal tendencies. There are three stages in the act of suicide, he explains. One, ideation: When a person gets a suicidal thought; second, planning: When he figures out how he will do it; third execution: When he collects all that is necessary to commit suicide. “While only 20 per cent graduate from ideation to execution, but most of our callers are at the planning stage. Our foremost priority is to somehow defer and delay that person’s act and fix up a meeting with him.”
Snehi’s busiest days are between January and March. That is the time when bulk of their callers is made up of students appearing for board examination. On an average though, Snehi gets about eight calls a day, majority from South Delhi. And most of the times, Mishra succeeds in coaxing the callers away from the brink.
But there are times when he fails.
It happened last year with a class XII student. The boy was sure he would fail and wanted to commit suicide. After a long persuasive telephone conversation, Mishra invited him to the counselling centre. “He came and promised that he would never think of suicide again. But a few days later, I got to know that he attempted suicide by taking sleeping pills,” Mishra says.
“There is always a risk that the distressed person may not keep his promise. Depending on the risk, there are times when I call such people back just to make sure that everything is all right,” he adds.
Mishra’s job as a counsellor has humbled him. Hopelessness and loneliness can be devastating, Mishra says. He believes that breakdown in relationships is the main reason behind intensifying urban loneliness, which is killing people like never before.
In fact, 70 per cent of the distress calls that the helpline receives are due to relationship issues, while 25 per cent are attributed to financial distress. “There is an increasing power struggle between husbands and wives. Women now want parity, thanks to their growing economic empowerment. We get lots of distress calls from both men and women because of their spouses’ extra martial affairs. Betrayal in love and marriage is rampant; the new generation does not think twice before breaking old relationships and entering into new ones,” says Mishra.
He also adds that EMIs are killing a lot of people in metros. And during the recession years of 2008 and 2009, there was a huge spurt in calls from people contemplating suicide because of financial distress.
But how do the never-ending stories of pain and misery affect your life, we ask Mishra. “Sometimes it’s difficult to switch off; sometimes, fragments of my conversations with distressed callers remain in my mind for days. There are times, I have cancelled or left social engagements halfway as I was too preoccupied with a caller’s situation,” says Mishra.
Then there is another occupational hazard. Many callers whom he invites to the counselling centre for a face-to-face discussion tend to get attracted to him as they see him as their saviour.
A few months ago, Mishra got a call from a 26-year-old PhD student from Delhi University. She had been in three consecutive abusive relationships, and felt used, abused and worthless. “After her counselling sessions which really helped her recover, she told me that she was in love with me. I had to immediately end her counselling sessions with me. That is the best way out in such cases as it is for their own good,” Mishra says in a matter-of-fact manner.