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Cops take action on public suicide threats

Mumbai's Anti-Suicide Squad is out to stop those people who are threatning to kill themselves. The unit, thought to be the only one of its kind in India, was formed in July

india Updated: Oct 06, 2008 16:55 IST

Got a complaint against the state? Think threatening to kill yourself outside a public building will get it resolved? Think again, say Indian police. Mumbai's Anti-Suicide Squad is out to stop you.

The unit, thought to be the only one of its kind in India, was formed in July amid concern about people threatening to commit suicide to put pressure on the civil authorities.

"Ninety-five per cent of cases are not serious. They're hoaxes. But five percent are genuine attempts," Deputy Commissioner of Police Vishwas Nangre-Patil, who came up with the idea, told AFP.

"A person has certain demands. He threatens to commit suicide, telling the (state) government that if his demands or grievances are not satisfied within the stipulated period, he will kill himself."

The problem is particularly acute when the Maharashtra state assembly is sitting, attracting television cameras, photographers and journalists to the bustling commercial and administrative hub of south Mumbai, he added.

"There are certain signals. If there are six or seven television cameras, you just know that somebody is going to come there and create a nuisance or highlight a particular issue," he said.

"In the van we keep blankets and a fire extinguisher, so if someone tries to set themselves on fire in front of us, we can give them first aid."

Police try to trace the person when they get wind of a possible suicide attempt, taking steps to ensure they do not carry through their plans, he explained.

Whoever is the subject of the complaint like a government department is also contacted "to satisfy that grievances are resolved as early as possible."

Only when those tactics fail do the squad's 10 plain clothes officers, seven men and three women go undercover at possible hotspots like the city's courts, the state assembly, municipal authority offices or police headquarters.

Action taken against people stopped at this stage varies from getting them to sign a court guarantee not to attempt suicide again, or jail: attempting suicide is against the law in India.

Nangre-Patil, who dismissed suggestions that those who threaten to kill themselves outside public buildings may have mental health problems, claims a 100 per cent success rate so far in the cases they have dealt with.

"There have been no successful suicide attempts. One person did come with a knife and tried to cut his throat but he was caught successfully by the squad," he said.

But the Anti-Suicide Squad only concentrates on public buildings in south Mumbai.

In the city as a whole, three people kill themselves every day and between eight to 16 others try, according to the director of mental health charity Aasra, Johnson Thomas.

That compares with two per week in the nearby commuter town of Navi Mumbai.

Many unsuccessful bids also go unreported, he added.

Across the country, the latest available statistics showed that just over 118,000 people committed suicide in India in 2006. Suicide rates over a 10-year period from 1996 rose nearly 34 percent nationwide.

"(An Anti-Suicide Squad) is one way of tackling the issue," Thomas told AFP. "But the problem is that if the police are posted in such locations then people will go somewhere else."

Thomas said there were already not enough police in India and that many officers were suffering mental health problems themselves because of overwork.

Better awareness and support mechanisms are needed to tackle mental health problems, as more Indians were now seeking help for conditions like depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, he said.

And the number of cases will rise as a result of the country's economic boom, through overwork, which leaves less time for friends and family, and the increasing gap between haves and have-nots, he added.

"There really has to be a strategy to handle suicides. It has to come from the government," he said.