DON’T GIVE UP

By Heather Cecilia Phanwar & Daiaphira Kharsati

Last year, a 17-year-old girl committed suicide after she was barred from the examination hall for carrying a mobile phone. Before she hanged herself, she had to face the school authorities in front of her parents. Nobody knows what exactly transpired during the meeting. Was she humiliated? Did her parents admonish her? Was she labelled the black sheep?
The several newspaper reports on the incident did not mention what the young mind had gone through before she picked up the dupatta and tied the noose. Did she feel fear, anger or complete despair? The reports did not mention. In fact, none of the numerous reports of suicide ever mention what thoughts or emotions play the trick on young victims, all of whom fall off the cliff with no one to help.
As the suicide graph rises steadily in Meghalaya, it becomes a social responsibility to take note of these reports which appear in the media and disappear from our memory like nothing happened. It becomes imperative to finally ask the question, “Why?” Why life turned darker than abyss for these youths? Why teenagers as young as 14 years are turning to death for solution to their problems?
A city-based counsellor says youths in today’s age are exposed to innumerable stimuli and they need to acquire knowledge and skill to differentiate and respond adequately and responsibly to them. However, only a few learn to cope with the pressing stimuli leading to helplessness and finally depression.
Meghalaya is among the states leading in suicide cases. In 2016, five suicide cases were reported in each of the age groups below 14 years and 14-18 years, says the statistics on the website of the state police department. This is a rise from the total deaths of seven in the two categories reported in 2014. The number of reported suicide cases in the age group of 18-30 years was 44 in 2016 as against 26 in 2014. The number in the age group of 14-18 was 51 in 2013, with ‘unknown causes’ claiming 26 and ‘family problems’ 10. In 2017, the total number of suicide deaths was 126. The number till August 2018 is 77.

Razor’s edge

Depression, an illness, is a major trigger for suicidal thoughts which in many cases culminate into successful action. A close friend of a suicide victim said there was a palpable change in his friend before he ended his life. “He drifted away from the friend circle, started drinking and would often be by himself,” he remembered the days just before the suicide.
A youth from Shillong studying in Bengaluru ended his life last year by jumping on to the tracks. The suicide note said he could no longer live in a world full of sins.
The Meghalaya police website, which classifies suicide cases according to the causes of death, does not mention depression as a category. However, it mentions categories like unemployment, poverty, love affairs, death of dear person, physical abuse and professional and family problems which can be direct or indirect causes of depression.
Despite depression being a menacing factor, mental health remains a tabooed topic in our society. The ignorance level is also surprising given the fact that the country and its people follow the same parameters of a modern society.
Many people think depression does not exist or it is nothing to be worried about. The age-old mindset automatically creates a wall between society and those suffering from depression forcing them into seclusion. Youths, especially teenagers who are already experiencing physical and psychological changes, become reluctant to speak about the crisis fearing that friends and relatives will cast aspersions on them. As the “coping mechanism” differs from person to person, some overcome the dark phase while others resort to the extreme step.
Social taboo is the reason why Sunday Shillong had to encounter apathy among friends and relatives of victims to speak on the issue. It is because of this that many who agreed to speak preferred to remain faceless.
Depression, unlike a wound or a malignant outgrowth, remains an invisible killer. But it is as painful as any physical illness, or may be worse. A young woman that Sunday Shillong spoke to said she did not know about the severity of the illness until she saw her aunty suffering from it. She said her aunt never spoke about it and let the pain accumulate inside her.
A counsellor associated with a city college says it is important that “we talk about it so that we have an understanding and that we seek help when the need arises”.
“It is a very serious challenge that we as a society and community are facing,” says the counsellor while talking about suicide.
There are three categories — completed suicide, nonfatal suicide attempters and suicidal ideators. In the first case, an individual kills himself or herself. Nonfatal suicide attempters are those who intentionally injure themselves but do not die and are available for treatment. The third kind of people think about or form an intent to suicide of varying degree of seriousness but do not make any explicit attempts. These suicide ideas may vary from nonspecific to specific ideas with intent ideas to a plan.
“As a college counsellor, I encounter many young minds who are creative, responsible and helpful. I have also encountered students who are facing difficulties in different walks of life. There are quite a number of them who had come to me and talked about having suicidal thoughts but majority (of them) are nonspecific. A few of them are nonfatal suicide attempters. But (in case of) any suicide thoughts we take them seriously and take necessary precautions,” the counsellor says.
Talking about support from near ones, the counsellor says the reaction of family members depends on their relationship with the person who is suffering from depression and suicidal tendencies. “But usually I meet family members who would be surprised that one of their loved ones could go through such serious crisis. Some of them would be angry with that particular person. These are very normal reactions,” she explains.
In March 2017, The Mental Healthcare Bill 2016, that decriminalises suicide and provides for mental healthcare and services for persons with mental illness, was passed in the Lok Sabha. But this could hardly change the mindset of the society and families still shudder at the thought of discussing issues like mental illness and suicide.
There is also a close link between drug abuse and suicide and studies have shown that many addicts end up taking their lives.
Last year, a 17-year-old boy in Jaintia Hills hanged himself from a tree. Later, reports said he was into substance abuse. With cases of drug abuse also on the rise, more youths in the state are becoming vulnerable and living on the edge.
“There is a slight increase (in suicide cases) in the last few years and this can be attributed to several reasons. It is alarming that most of them are teens. It may be due to peer pressure or pressure from society/parents/ guardians. There are also cases of love affairs. Influence of social media cannot be ruled out,” says East Khasi Hills SP Davis Marak.
With peer pressure, everyone wants to be perfect and show to the world, especially on social media, what kind of life they are living. The number of likes and comments becomes the parameter for acceptance or rejection. But in a nuclear family where both parents are working, a child’s emotional upheavals sparked off by external influences often go unnoticed or are ignored.
The Child Mind Institute, an independent non-profit organisation, says in its study on teen suicides, “One of the myths about suicidal talk, and actual suicide attempts, in young people is that they are just a bid for attention or ‘a cry for help’. Kids who talk or write about killing themselves are dismissed as overly dramatic — obviously they don’t mean it! But a threat of suicide should never be dismissed, even from a kid who cries “Wolf!” so many times it’s tempting to stop taking her seriously. It’s important to respond to threats and other warning signs in a serious and thoughtful manner. They don’t automatically mean that a child is going to attempt suicide. But it’s a chance you can’t take.”

Wearing a mask

Who could have imagined that comedian Robin Williams would end his life? It might seem unlikely but many people who are suffering from depression often mask their dark thoughts with an outwardly happiness that is not easy to fathom.
Friends and family members of victims often say in disbelief that they never expected someone who was so happy and content with life to take the extreme step.
“He was someone that I could always count on and I never expected him to do such a thing. A person who was always smiling and he never had any problems. He loved gaming a lot and it was one of his favourite hobbies. He really loved his small sister as well,” said the best friend of a teenaged victim in the city.
A relative of another victim told Sunday Shillong that his cousin was “a happy-go-lucky person”.
“He was dynamic with church related activities. He was a really good painter… He didn’t have a stable job and he didn’t want to disappoint his family as well. It was also not the first time that he contemplated suicide but that time he succeeded. Now we just think and wonder about the ‘what ifs’,” he said of his cousin.
“When my friend called me up before he killed himself, I did not have a whiff of what he was planning. He spoke with me normally and sounded calm. The next morning, I woke up to the shock,” said the friend of a suicide victim.

Awareness

Most of the counsellors admit to low level of awareness on professional counselling and the role of trained counsellors in different settings.
In the urban environment of Shillong, families and individuals are aware of counselling but the stigma still persists. Educational institutions, both schools and colleges, are aware of the dire need of counselling but most of them remain reluctant.
“When students are not accessible to a trained professional and with the misconception and stigmatisation that deter them from seeking help outside their institutions, their problems only worsen. Sometimes they don’t know where to get help for emotional and social issues apart from reaching out to rehabilitation centres. Therefore, we need to bridge this gap,” says a counsellor adding that people must learn to accept that mental illness or distress is like any physical distress that requires professional help. They need to stop associating the word mental with the word mad or crazy.

In search of light

A counsellor associated with a reputed city school says students often come to her with complaints like inability to concentrate in studies, absenteeism, distraction, poor academic performance, behavioural or bullying issues, “which commonly stem from depressive symptoms and issues related to stress and hence substance abuse”.
But students who have sought help “have shown signs of improvement in behaviour and emotional regulation and better academic performance”, says the counsellor.
“The two main sources of learning are home and school. The key is positive parenting at home and for all educational institutes to include Social-Emotional Learning, or SEL, in their curriculum,” she adds.
However, the counsellor maintains that teachers should be careful about playing the dual role of teacher-counsellor, “which is against the ethical principles and rules of the helping profession”.
There are about a hundred trained counsellors associated with various schools and colleges in the city.
Families of affected persons who are unaware of the gravity of the problem are often recommended “psycho-education about suicide and the threats”. “This is to make them understand what the person is going through and also to identify signs and symptoms and what precautions are to be taken. But if it is a completed suicide then the family goes through what we call a triple burden of grief, rage and guilt. In this case there is a different therapy and procedure,” says one of the counsellors.
The professionals say a person should immediately seek help in case of depression or share his or her problems with an adult. If one notices a change in a friend, he or she should not be judgemental and instead offer help.
Every school and college must have a counsellor and a special educator and this should be mandated by the government through proper policy. A school counsellor has an important role to play as he or she has to collaborate with the school, parents and children. The counsellor must conduct parenting skills or psycho-educational programmes for parents to make them confident enough to take care of their child’s physical, emotional, social, intellectual and spiritual needs.
There is also a need for creating awareness on the rights of children and a follow-up on cases of physical, emotional, verbal and sexual abuses.
The government needs to encourage research to understand the core issues of society and suggest culturally relevant corrective measures.
But above all, parents should be open to healthy conversations because they are the closest to a child and it is easier for them to perceive any behavioural change in their ward.

(With inputs from Andre Kongri & Nabamita Mitra)

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