What must it be like to try to help people choose to live every single day?

‘Suicide is not the answer,’ they say. But when one loses all hope and the will to live, what does one do? ‘Talk about it. There are so many suicide helplines these days. Why don’t you try calling one of them?’ While one’s life and decisions are in one’s own hands — and fate’s, perhaps — suicide helplines go a long way in reassuring one that they don’t have to face the cold, hard world all alone. That somewhere, a phone call away, is a person who is there — who listens to one without judgment, feels one’s pain and helps one along the journey of deciding to choose life.
That someone is a suicide helpline volunteer. What must it be like to try to help people choose to live every single day? Sunday Magazine speaks to Johnson Thomas, Director, Aasra. Aasra is a crisis intervention centre that provides ‘voluntary, professional and essentially confidential care and support to the depressed and the suicidal’. Thomas is also one of Aasra’s co-founders and mans the helpline everyday. From receiving 10 or 12 calls a day in six hours’ time, when Aasra began, to 70 to 100 over 24 hours everyday — from all over India and abroad — Thomas has heard and spoken to a lot of people in the past 17 years. What is the age group that seems to make the most number of calls? “Twenty to 35,” says Thomas, although teenagers, he adds, are not without their share of troubles. And what, if the trite question can be forgiven, seems to be the most common reasons a person considers suicide? “Triggers could be anything from relationship troubles, break-ups, exam tensions, job concerns, inability to cope with certain situations, bereavement, and so on,” he says. “An average call could take around 20 to 30 minutes, but sometimes there are calls that last even two or three hours.”
In fact, he tells us, 30 per cent of calls are callbacks. People often call them back and tell them they’re doing okay and that they’re happy and making positive progress in their lives. There are times, however, that a person might call back to discuss another problem he/ she is facing.
What qualifies a person to man a suicide helpline? “We don’t look for qualifications,” says Thomas, “we look for quality. One of the main qualities would be the ability to listen without judgment and the ability to give time and commitment — a basic level of education will do. We provide a year of training that allows a person to graduate to taking care of the helpline.”
Manning a helpline for 17 years can’t have been easy. Is there a call that is etched in Thomas’ memory? “Difficult to say, but yes, there is one… It was a call from someone who works in a Naxal-prone area. He lost his wife; they were planning a baby. He was not able to go home. The other child of his was being taken care of by grandparents. He felt that he really didn’t have any reason to live. He couldn’t bear the daily attacks and killings and felt even if he continued his life over there, he’d die anyway. He spoke about it and in the process focussed on his child. He then started feeling there was some hope and decided to carry on living.”
Seventeen years’ worth of such calls must have taken their toll? “The calls affect me because sensitivity is an important factor as well in a helpline volunteer; anything will affect you if you’re sensitive. But there’s also a lot of personal gratification because you get to help people; I wouldn’t say save lives, because it’s like saying their life is in your control — it’s not. We just help people through the process of helping themselves.”
And where does he draw the line between sympathy and empathy? “Ours is an empathetic service,” he asserts. “It’s not a sympathetic service. We’re not looking down on anyone or what they’re going through — we’re going through it with them as far as possible — so that they understand that we also understand. And they feel one with us, otherwise they won’t talk to us, that’s the idea.”
At any given time, he adds, there are two volunteers manning the lines. The shifts are on rotation and each shift lasts four to six hours, depending on the slots the volunteers have chosen.
We ask him a slightly tough question. Does someone who mans such a helpline ever come to know whether his/ her efforts have failed? Thomas mulls that one over. “Most people who call and talk to us generally end up choosing life,” he says. “The whole process of just choosing to ask for help and having someone willing to listen to them and understand their pain can extend their life… But, no, we don’t really get to know if someone commits suicide.”
According to government data, Maharashtra saw the highest number of suicides in 2014, while Chennai topped the list among cities. While the morality of considering or committing suicide remains under debate, the fact remains that about 40 per cent of those who call suicide helplines are considered the ‘youth’ of the country. National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data shows that 69.7 per cent of the people who committed suicide in 2014 had an annual income of less than Rs. 1 lakh. Indian law does not help matter either. According to Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, suicide is illegal and the survivor is fined and can face a jail term of upto a year. While the Mental Health Care Bill, 2013 might be able to help repeal Section 309, as of yet the bill has not been passed.
National helplines:
Aasra: 022-27546669