A digital magazine on sexuality in the Global South
A man in a checkered shirt sits at a dek where a placard shows the rough outline of the human brain with messages about the importance seeking help for bad mental health written on it
CategoriesMental Health and SexualityVoices

Finding Hope At The Other End Of The Line: Stories from AASRA’s Helpline For Suicide Prevention

I run an NGO called AASRA, a 24×7 crisis intervention center for the depressed and suicidal. Day in and day out we receive plenty of calls from people seeking unbiased support and caring for problems that they find difficult to deal with on their own. AASRA has enjoyed a successful run of 16 years, and during this time it has overcome many a crises of its own from finding suitable volunteers, to locating appropriate spaces for our operations and getting donors to help us financially. Despite these perennial problems we continue to work with full vigour, thanks to some dedicated and selfless volunteers who make time from their busy individual schedules to help out with the different aspects of our work – administration, awareness, publicity, fundraising and our helpline.

At AASRA our efforts have been concentrated around creating a general awareness about suicide and the factors that could lead to a person choosing to end his or her life, training youth and adults in self-help methods to combat stress and depression and providing crisis afflicted persons an intermediary between despair and hope so that they could be better prepared to make the decisions that could help them improve their life situations. Our helpline offers caring, non-judgemental, uncritical emotional first aid that helps the caller regain some self-esteem and confidence enough to take the next step towards recovery.

The Helpline defines us, in fact. It is our mainstay, and helps disturbed, despairing, depressed and suicidal people to get in touch with us. The rising graph on the number of suicides in the country is a testament to the need for such services which help alleviate feelings of worthlessness and alienation in people undergoing crises. Almost 90% of the people we speak to have preferred to call us by this route. Mental health has long since been a neglected aspect in our public health care systems and therefore the onus for support and care falls on NGOs with limited resources and a bleeding heart. The number of people with mental illnesses, especially those suffering from depression, is increasing steadily, given the fast pace of our modern lives and the fractured and negligible urban support systems. Also, with the growing awareness about sexual diversity, we find a large section of the LGBTQI population seeking our services too. In fact available evidence suggests that LGBTQI people have a higher risk of experiencing suicidal feelings, self-harm, drug or alcohol misuse and mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. The reasons for these findings are complex and not yet fully understood but they are largely linked to experiences of discrimination, homophobia, bullying and a general lack of understanding from society. Being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer, transsexual or transvestite is not a mental illness. There is a growing community out there that is vociferous about its trampled-upon rights, particularly after the World Health Organisation declared in 1992 that homosexuality should not be considered a psychiatric condition.

But coming to terms with an identity that is different to that of most of your peers, or coping with ignorance, prejudice and discrimination, can be confusing and distressing.

Sexuality defines us not only as man, woman, LGBTQI but it affects our self-esteem as well. We are affected by how attractive we may feel to others and our abilities to satisfy others and ourselves. Our sexuality is a way in which we connect to others in a deep personal manner. Sexuality is very personal; even between heterosexual couples, relationships can be challenging and fragile.

For LGBTQI persons, it’s even more so. The proportion of calls we get from LGBTQI people is much lower than what we receive from those who do not identify themselves so, but it’s nevertheless significant. “I am a 30-year-old closet homosexual from one of the southern states. My friends are all married and my parents are now pressurising me to follow suit. Don’t know what to do. Should I get into a heterosexual marriage because I crave for family life and an end to this crippling loneliness?” is the often-heard question, begging an answer. For lesbians too the crux of the problem is generally the same. For transgender people it’s about justifying their existence in the world that literally views them as aliens. In India, it is complicated further because of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises homosexuality, among other sexual behaviours. After decades of discrimination, an Indian high court read down this section in 2009. But the community’s sigh of relief did not last very long.  Roughly a year ago, the Supreme Court overruled the lower court’s decision. Now, fear stalks the LGBTQI community again.

But there is hope. Just last month (16 Feb 2015) in fact, Justice A P Shah, Chairman, Law Commission, opined “Section 377 is discriminatory in its application, unreasonable in its intent, deprives a group of its personal autonomy and violates individual privacy and human dignity. Consequently, there is damage to the psychological well being of homosexuals, encouragement of violence and facilitation of police harassment and discrimination against the LGBT community.”  The occasion was a well-attended launch of a book ‘Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity’ by Justice Michael Kirby, former judge of the High Court of Australia. Senior advocate Fali S Nariman who was also present for the occasion, condemned the Supreme Court’s verdict of December 2013 criminalising gay sex, “Sexual minorities have been looking to the judiciary for support but it has not been forthcoming,” he said.

Whatever be your sexual orientation life is not easy. It’s also doubly difficult when you do not conform to the norm. Information about the mental health and wellbeing of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people is not collected at a national level.  And that is a huge hurdle for health care outreach to this community at large.

Women do not receive the health care they need either. Rape has become a regular feature in the daily newspapers and TV bulletins. We know that women are vulnerable and oppressed. Yet there is no concerted effort from successive governments to either educate and create awareness, or to make improvements in the laws on sexual crimes.  Recently we received a call from a girl from a north-eastern state who claimed she faced sexual violence right from a very young age. “I got pregnant at 14. My family hushed it up and got the foetus aborted. My 21-year old cousin, who was responsible for it, got away without so much as a reprimand. My family blamed me entirely. And thereafter my life has been difficult. I end up involving myself in sexual, though emotionally unfulfilling relationships, with severe trauma and abuse and I am just not able to break away from that cycle.” Today she is unable to come to terms with her past and just cannot find the strength to put her life in order. She was suicidal and did not see any purpose for her continued living. Those who have been raped need specialised care and support. Even after several hours of counseling therapy, it’s not going to be easy for them to go back into the real world and function normally, especially when they have to deal with victim-blaming and the lack of support.

Our family systems are so patriarchal in nature that for any woman to stand up and raise her voice against a man becomes next to impossible. Leslee Udwin’s ‘India’s Daughter’ exposed the heinous patriarchal mindset that governs male behavior in general. Instead of trying to set up a system in order to address that issue, the Government chose to turn it into a slight on Indian culture and ban the documentary. Notwithstanding this ban, the film managed to garner millions of eyeballs across the globe, including in India. Forceful use of power might gain results but given the nature of the Internet world, it’s not going to be easy to suppress the truth. Truth will out eventually!

At AASRA our efforts have been concentrated around creating a general awareness about suicide and the factors that could lead to a person choosing to end his or her life, training youth and adults in self-help methods to combat stress and depression and providing  crisis afflicted persons an intermediary between despair and hope so that they could be better prepared to make the decisions that could help them improve their life situations. Our helpline offers caring,  non-judgemental, uncritical emotional first-aid that helps the caller regain some self-esteem and confidence enough to take the next step towards recovery.

Cover Image: Johnson Thomas, AASRA

हिंदी में इस लेख को पढ़ने के लिए, कृपया यहां क्लिक करें।

Comments

Article written by:

Johnson Thomas is a social worker, film-critic, journalist, writer, biographer, Suicide, Depression and Substance abuse Counsellor, Hypnotherapst, Soft-Skills trainer based in Mumbai. He is the founder/director of AASRA , an NGO working in the field of suicide & depression for the past 14 years, and the co-ordinator of the NGO forum of Navi Mumbai consisting of 70 NGOs working in diverse fields of social welfare. He has worked as a freelance journalist and film critic for the past 17 years, writing for various Indian publications.

x