Counsellors speak out about the recent spate of student suicides in the city, tell you how to identify warning signs and how to deal with depression. Illustration: Uttam Ghosh
Priya Dutta's voice has a soothing lilt to it. The 24-year-old has answered the phone on the first ring and hears you out patiently before speaking out herself.
When she speaks, she doesn't sound didactic, nor does she tell you what you should do. Instead she lets her callers come to their conclusions. It's what she's been trained for.
Dutta is a tele-psychologist working with the new suicide prevention helpline in Mumbai (022-25706000). The line, which has been functional for the last five-odd months, has come into the limelight after the city's municipal corporation tied up with it and the ever-hungry mass media lapped up the story of this unique helpline that reaches out to patients in the middle of the night, literally!
The helpline has been receiving over 70 calls each day. If experts are to be believed, the number is expected to rise as the exam dates draw closer. From January right up to March each year, helplines such as the one Dutta works for get crazy busy. The numbers drop for a month or so before the graduation exams begin from April and last up to May. This is also the time when most of the exam results are declared across Maharashtra.
When we ask Dutta about the kind of stress that kids may be facing, she has nothing new to offer. 'Parental pressure', 'peer pressure', 'personal ambitions', 'stiff competition' are phrases we've all heard of and things that we as children perhaps faced too.
Ironically, these are the very issues that are troubling today's young children and teens. Three more students committed suicide on Monday, taking the toll to over 27 in less than a month.
Dutta is among the 400-odd psychologists in the city who are perplexed with the issue. With exams approaching this is perhaps the 'peak season'. But never before have so many young students decided to end their lives in an almost domino effect.
Dr Arun John, the Executive Vice President of Vandrevala Foundation and Dutta's boss, has been pleading with newspaper editors to avoid running suicide-related stories on their front pages. "This is a copycat effect," he says, "Children often perceive these kids as their heroes and want to emulate them."
John tells us that his helpline had been equipped to handle 40 calls and has the infrastructure to take about 100 calls each day. From the time it took off in August 2009, the numbers are steadily increasing.
The key, as most psychologists would agree, is to identify the signs. John says that a suicidal person has just a tenth of a second to tide over that feeling of utter dismay before s/he takes the final step. He adds that it is also possible to identify early signs.
How to identify early signs and deal with them
According to John, one of the signs of suicidal persons includes withdrawal. This, he says is most common and must be identified as quickly as possible.
"The teen years are a difficult time for children and they need to be counselled about the changes happening in their bodies. If your friend or child has suddenly withdrawn into a shell, one must try and reach out to him/her."
He adds that while the basic issues that teens and young students face haven't changed much, there is much more cutthroat competition. "There is increased pressure from parents and there is increased pressure from the peer group. No one wants to be left behind. Kids these days desperately want to be in the top five of everything. It isn't possible. When personal ambitions are not fulfilled, things can go drastically wrong."
Sustained bouts of depression are also classic signs. Dutta says that these include depressive talks about loss of interest in the world and sporadic mentions of death.
She adds, "You also have to pay attention to what they say. If someone says, 'I won't see you tomorrow,' chances are that s/he is contemplating suicide. In such cases, you have to talk to the person and find out what is bothering him/her. If you can foresee it but don't know how to handle it, get someone to talk to them"
Dutta continues, "Check the shopping list. If it includes unusual objects like a rope or rat poison or pills and they are unable to justify why they have bought it, you have a red flag right there." Lending a patient ear is perhaps the first in a long list of solutions. Suicide helplines are there for a reason. Get them to talk to your friend/child or get someone your child is comfortable with to have a word with him/her.
Parents who lost their 19-year-old daughter a few years ago but prefer not to be named told us that she had been browsing various Internet websites to find out ways to kill herself. She took the drastic step when they were out one day. They discovered her Internet browsing history much after she died. They say the girl showed absolutely no signs of depression or panic and had hardly anticipated this from her. Ironically, she was an undergraduate student of psychology. While policing your child's Internet history might not be advisable, a random check might give you an insight into what is going on in his/her mind.
According to John, however, one of the best tell-tale signs of a person wanting to commit suicide is when s/he starts giving away his/her things. He points out that no one wants baggage and killing oneself is perhaps the only way they can see themselves getting rid of the pressures and problems. "In such situations, many of them prefer giving off their belongings. If someone is doing that simply out of the blue, it means there is something brewing inside his/her head."
Psychologists such as Dr Sadiya Raval believe that these are just some of the most recognisable signs and it is important to be tuned in to the person next to you to know what might be going on in his/her head. She says that while the person's friends and family can do quite a bit to counsel and save the day, it is important that the person take control of his/her life.
How to deal with depression and stress
Raval believes that as a society we have created stereotypes of successful people and we invariably are chasing that elusive ideal, or are pushing our children to chase it instead. Very often this leads to either or both of the following things -- the child ends up being an underachiever or s/he loses her true calling. In either case, the child will not grow up to be a happy individual.
Raval says that it is pertinent for one to understand one's limitations. "If you are not cut out for engineering or medicine," she says, "it doesn't make sense to study it."
The practicing psychologist shares an instance of a young girl who moved from a small town to Mumbai. "Back there she was at the top of her class, excelling in everything. She was someone who teachers encouraged other kids to emulate. When she moved to Mumbai, she was in a school where there were many achievers like her. Suddenly she found herself lost amidst the bright kids in her class and went into a depression."
Communicating is a two-way process. It is as important for children and young adults to reach out to the people around them, as it is for those people to understand their needs. Johnson Thomas, Director of Aasra, a suicide-prevention helpline says that many parents seem to compensate for the lack of emotional support by giving material gifts. "Children and teenagers need emotional support even if they might not show it. Be there for them, talk to them and understand what they really want," he says.
John feels that thinking positive holds the key. It is something his tele-psychologists practice too. When they get a call from someone who wants to end his/her life they try giving what they call 'positive self talk'. "Besides thinking positive it is important to keep oneself busy. Very often, not having anything to do puts you into a deeper depression," he says. "Watch television, go for a walk or engage yourself in an activity that will keep you engaged."
Dutta adds, "The other thing we tell young callers is to stop worrying about the outcome of any exam. Very often we get calls from kids who have forgotten their formulae and have a big exam the next morning. We tell them to just take it easy because last minute cramming is of little or no help. When you don't panic and start writing, things usually come to you."
John also says that good sleep is the key to good mental health. "We advise young students to sleep adequately and eat well. A good balance of work and rest is very important. Do yoga, practice meditation."
Even as Rawal agrees with John and Dutta, she is somewhat sceptical of how much a young student actually puts into practice. "How many students practice yoga?" she questions. "At the end of the day the person must be able to believe in oneself and have a support system -- a group of people s/he can turn to in times of distress."
When we ask Raval if she believes that suicide is an escapist's way out, she replies in the positive. "Many of us want to escape from any uncomfortable situation. One must understand that there is always a way out of any mess and that one always has a choice of fighting back. It finally boils down to that," she says. "You need to be independent and if you are a parent, learn to let go and let your child stand on his/her feet. Give your children freedom and let them take responsibility so they can affect change in themselves."