As the date for the announcement of the Class X and XII (CBSE) examination results draws near, students' stress levels will soon be touching new highs. At such a time - when confidence and anxiety move in troublesome, opposite directions - children could resort to extreme measures. In such circumstances, NGOs such as Sneha, a Chennai-based centre for suicide prevention, can help prevent a situation get out of hand. (Sneha means 'love' in several Indian languages.)
Says P.V. Shankaranarayanan, Director of Sneha, "Children often experience stress and fear - especially when results are announced. They suffer from the fear of failure and are often nervous at the prospect of facing their parents and teachers. At times, they are hesitant to confide in their parents as they sense that they, too, are under pressure. In such a situation, the children often feel lonely and isolated. It is at this point that they need someone to talk to, to understand their worries, sympathize and soothe, without being judgmental."
An NGO run by a group of dedicated volunteers and one that operates solely on public donations, Sneha does exactly this - it provides a 'listening' service for people to unburden and vent their feelings, offering care, emotional support and complete confidentiality to the lonely, the depressed and the suicidal. Set up in 1986 by Dr Lakshmi Vijayakumar, Sneha has, over the last 20 years, reached out to over 150,000 individuals.
According to the volunteers at Sneha, suicide is a major problem in India and around the world. Sample some chilling statistics: Every year, over 10,00,000 persons commit suicide in India. More precisely, every five minutes, someone in India commits suicide; while every three seconds someone attempts a suicide.
In 2005, over 100,000 Indians resorted to this extreme measure. Tamil Nadu registered 10,000 deaths, with 2,275 in Chennai alone. Of the 2,275 suicides in the city, 1,333 were men, 942 women and 54 children, the last category specifically due to failure at an examination. In the West, suicides are higher among the elderly, who feel isolated and have lost their will to live; in India, the susceptible age group, shockingly, is the young. Stress levels are the highest among those between 15-45 years.
With suicides being one of the major causes of deaths in India, counseling and intervention organizations have a pivotal role to play. Sneha was perhaps one of the first such organizations set up in India. In 1953, a movement to provide support and counseling for people experiencing suicidal feelings was started in London, which spread to many countries. In India, Dr Lakshmi Vijayakumar, a psychiatrist with Voluntary Health Services, Chennai, took the first step and set up Sneha.
Explains Shankaranarayanan, "The reason the centre was set up in Chennai was because the city, 20 years back, was known for its conservative and orthodox attitudes. Suicide or emotional problems were not often discussed, as some level of social stigma was associated with them. Therefore, there was definitely a pressing need to set up a forum where people could talk about this."
The counseling strategy adopted by Sneha is simple but effective. People can walk into its offices - open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. - or talk to volunteers via a 24-hour toll-free hotline. Help-seekers can also approach the organization through e-mail or normal post. All services are provided free of cost. Once someone approaches Sneha, complete confidentiality and anonymity is maintained. The individual is encouraged to open up and talk about his or her problems. The aim of a Sneha volunteer is to calm the person down, so that he or she is capable of taking a sensible, rational decision. By and large, individuals who turn to Sneha are usually emotionally charged and in a confused state of mind.
What is it that triggers suicidal tendencies? A popular misconception is that people who wish to hurt themselves are mentally ill. However, as a Sneha volunteer explains, suicidal feelings often result from deep-seated unhappiness. The best way to help a person overcome that is to offer them comfort and care. Encouraging them to speak about their problems is the first step to resolving them. When a volunteer feels the need to recommend medical help, s/he suggests it to the help-seeker. If the latter agrees, Sneha refers the individual to a psychiatrist.
The NGO also responds to approaches from family members or friends of an individual in need of help. Says Shankaranarayan, "While we do make an effort to reach out to such people, if they are unwilling to talk to us, we see no point in forcing them. It is important to respect the wishes of the individual. If s/he is not ready to share, we have to accept that."
Sneha also counsels those who have attempted suicide and survived. Such persons either contact Sneha voluntarily or are referred to by hospitals and the police.
For every suicide attempt that ends in death, around 10 to 15 people are affected - emotionally, socially or economically - directly or indirectly. Such persons are at a higher risk of engaging in suicidal behavior themselves. Recognizing this, Sneha set up a self-help group - Survivors after Suicide - for those who have lost a loved one to suicide. The group helps them deal with the loss and guilt, overcome the pain and move on with their lives.
Volunteers at Sneha come from all walks of life. They are selected after careful screening. Though a professional qualification is not mandatory, they are put through a training programme. Says Shankaranarayanan, "Before they start, we brief them and provide orientation. All our volunteers are fluent in both Tamil and English. They also must commit to being available for four hours at a stretch on any day of the week."
What is the emotional impact on the volunteers who listen to disturbed minds? According to Shankaranarayanan, volunteers, too, may sometimes become emotionally disturbed after interacting with help-seekers. To overcome this, they are provided with counseling sessions.
Sneha is an affiliate of the UK-based Befrienders International, a banner organization with over 3,000 centers all over the world. It is a founding member of Befrienders India, with centers in cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Ahmedabad, Thrissur, Kochi, Kozhikode, Irinjalakuda, North Paravur, Secunderabad and Pondicherry. They work within the framework of the charter of Befrienders International. Sneha is also a member of the International Association for Suicide Prevention. Their future plans include, widening the network to cover more cities in Tamil Nadu.