Suicide prevention helplines fight to stay alive in Delhi
The dimly lit basement office of Sumaitri has several framed posters with myriad messages, one of which reads — the only thing holding her back is a telephone line with you at the end of it.
The grim black and white poster has a picture of a distraught woman, her head resting on a table next to a telephone. The purpose of the poster is to seek volunteers for Sumaitri, Delhi’s oldest suicide prevention helpline. The poster promises prospective volunteers ‘no salary, no travel allowance, no other monetary benefits — may be lots of satisfaction’.
Sumaitri is a crisis intervention centre and operates a suicide prevention helpline at Bhagwandas Lane in the heart of the Capital. One of the reception walls of the bleak basement office, which looks more like a polyclinic with its many cabins, has clippings of newspaper articles on suicides. The room with the telephone line spells out clearly in big, bold letters: No Entry.
The helpline operates for eight hours on weekdays and 12 hours on weekends. The two volunteers work in shifts — one answers a landline telephone, and the other counsels visitors. Sumaitri, which started its operations in 1988, is one of the 16 helplines that are affiliated to the Indian branch of Befrienders, an international volunteer-based suicide prevention organisation.
“We do not have the funds to jazz up our office or relocate but we try to make up for that with our befriending skills. We are a volunteer-driven organisation. Our priority is to be a 24/7 helpline but we do not have resources to do that,” says Ajay Malhotra, a volunteer.
India has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. According to a 2014 World Health Organisation report, it accounted for the highest estimated number of suicides in the world in 2012. Data released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) said 1,33,623 people committed suicide in India in 2015. Delhi with 1,553 suicides stood at number 3 among the cities from where the highest number of suicides were reported.
Recently, Parliament passed the mental health bill that decriminalised suicide. Ironically, most of the country’s 20-odd volunteer-driven suicide prevention helplines, are struggling to survive. While distress calls have increased five times in the past few years, many of them have had to reduce their operation time, due to a lack of resources and dwindling number of volunteers.
Snehi, one of Delhi’ three helplines, has reduced its operation time from eight hours, seven days a week to five hours six days a week. “Earlier, about 50 volunteers were managing our operations, and now we have only 15 volunteers, most of whom work five hours a week. Earlier, we operated out of a 3,000 sq ft facility now and we operate from a 400 sq ft space,” says Abdul Mabood, director, Snehi.
Set up in 1994, Snehi’s two helplines get about 120 calls a day during exam season. “The number of missed calls has increased drastically. Our suicide prevention and student helplines have 50 missed calls every day unlike a few years back when we had only about 10 missed calls. We do not have the resources to take all the calls. Our volunteer-driven helpline is dying a slow death, we cannot survive on loans for too long,” says Mabood.
In fact, not just Delhi, helplines in other cities too are struggling. Aasra in Mumbai, one of the country’s first 24-hour suicide prevention helplines, is finding the going tough.
These days it gets about 170 calls a day — up from 50 five years back. It has 28 volunteers from varied backgrounds. Most of them have a day job and work at Aasra four-six hours per week. Aasra director Jonhson Thomas says that the organisation is funded by his friends, family, and volunteers.
“Most corporates ask for details like our success rate as a condition for funding, which is very difficult to measure. Besides, getting volunteers is increasingly becoming difficult. Ten years back, we had committed volunteers who would stay with us at least for three years, but now they stay for a couple of months. We mostly get students whose only interest is getting a certificate for social work. It puts pressure on our resources as we train our volunteers for six months,” says Thomas, who himself volunteers four hours a day for the helpline.
Both Thomas and Mabood feel that the changing dynamics of modern day life have made it difficult for people to work as volunteers. “Unlike in the past, a lot of people do not have time. They work longer hours in the office, leaving them with no time for volunteering,” says Thomas, who started the helpline in 1998.
Mabood blames the general attitude towards suicide in India for the state of helplines. “What we need to understand is suicide speaks of the pathology of society, not of the individual. It is high time the government created a centralised suicide helpline,” he says.
Rajesh Pillai, president, Befrienders India, says that suicide prevention in India has never been the priority of the government. “Unfortunately, as of now India has no suicide prevention policy. Even Sri Lanka has one, but we hope that the proposed mental health authority in the bill will focus on suicide prevention activities. Sixteen suicide prevention helplines across the country which are affiliated to us roughly have 700 volunteers, which is just not enough,” says Pillai.
He adds that the role of trained volunteers is very important because India is short of mental health professionals. “A psychiatrist in India is not able to give enough time to patients. We need to understand that suicide is not always a mental illness, it could be a result of emotional stress, which can be mitigated by talking to someone. Volunteers are trained to listen proactively and help people ventilate,” says Pillai. “Unlike in the West where people take pride in volunteering, very few young people in India come forward to volunteer. We mostly get retired people.”
Nimesh Desai, director, Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences (IHBAS), Delhi, says that suicide prevention is a multi-faceted strategy, so different models may suit different people. He points out that the anonymous telephone services, based on the befriending model, are very different from most professional models.
“It is based on basic human spirit of helping other human beings in distress as unpaid volunteer effort. There are some inherent advantages and disadvantages of this model. So in a society like ours all models are worth encouraging, ” he says.
Volunteers working with helplines say that pulling people from the brink is not an easy job. Brijinder Grewal, 51, who volunteers five hours a week at Senhi, says that the reasons for growing emotional distress is the fact that isolation has increased, the family has taken a backseat, and people are scared of being judged. A suicide attempt, she says, is essentially a cry for help.
“These days a majority of our calls are from teenagers with suicidal thoughts over heartbreak. We did not get such cases when we started as volunteers 19 years back. The social media, which promotes people to compare their lives with others, has also become a source of distress,” she says. So are not volunteers getting affected by the perpetual tales of pain and misery that they hear? “It overwhelms us at times. We have to learn to switch off. Besides, we take mandatory breaks.”