New Delhi: In the wake of actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death by suicide Sunday, many social media users began sharing details of helplines and other prevention resources. However, the reality is that most of the numbers being circulated are incorrect, and also that most helplines are unavailable at night, on weekends, and even during usual ‘business hours’.
Most helplines state on their websites that their services are only available during certain hours. For example, Mumbai-based Samaritans states that it is available between 5 pm and 8 pm, while New Delhi-based Sumaitri says it works from 2 pm to 10 pm Monday to Friday, and 10 am to 10 pm on the weekends.
However, even the helplines that claim 24×7 availability are often unable to provide help due to a shortage of funds or volunteers. ThePrint called up five such helplines at 10 pm Sunday, of which only Navi Mumbai-based Aasra answered.
But even the claim of availability during ‘business hours’ is incorrect, ThePrint found. At 1 pm Monday, calls were made to seven different helplines, of which only the Gujarat-based Vandrevala Foundation’s 24×7 Jeevan Aastha helpline answered, after having not received the call the previous evening. Mumbai-based Parivartan Trust also answered Monday afternoon, on a number that is listed on its website but is different to the one circulating on social media. The Fortis Stress helpline was also available Monday afternoon and around 10 pm the same evening.
According to a report in The Hindu online, the number 104 is available in states such as Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Odisha to counsel people with mental or psychological disorders.
Most helplines are run by NGOs on their own initiatives, or through tie-ups with state governments. The central government does not have a dedicated suicide prevention helpline.
According to Dr Hamid Dabholkar, psychiatrist at Parivartan Trust in Maharashtra, the lack of manpower and funding are the biggest reasons why the helplines aren’t available all the time.
“Almost all NGOs are running helplines on a ‘something is better than nothing basis’,” Dabholkar said. “Most people manning the calls are volunteers with no expertise on how to deal with a suicidal individual; they only receive a 2-3 hour-long training, which is not enough.”
Even the 24×7 helplines that are available are acutely short-staffed. A senior counsellor with Jeevan Aastha in Gujarat, who did not wish to be named, said they only have three counsellors available through the day.
“It’s a professional limitation. Sometimes calls get missed when we’re tending to someone else. What do we do in such a situation?” the counsellor said.
Why helplines are important
These helplines are often the last resort that people try to reach before attempting to take their own life, and rejection from these places can leave individuals feeling way more desolate, according to Delhi-based psychologist Neelam Mishra.
“We have to realise the fact that when someone calls, they’re at highest point of distress and are desperately looking for an exit,” Mishra said, adding that people whose calls aren’t answered feel even more unwanted.
For instance, when 21-year-old Ananya Anindita from Cuttack found herself on the verge of killing herself, she called various helplines for assistance. But help wasn’t available.
“I called Aasra, Fortis and Vandrevala, but none of them answered,” Anindita told ThePrint. “When someone at Vandrevala finally picked up, he told me his shift has ended and disconnected the call.”
Covid impact on mental health
Now, with the Covid-19 crisis affecting virtually every individual, experts have warned that the resulting anxiety, isolation and stress will lead to a surge in mental health-related problems.
The number of calls received on suicide prevention helplines has also witnessed a significant spurt amid the lockdown.
“People are isolated from their loved ones, stuck in their houses with their daily routines disrupted… At this time loneliness, is putting a lot of people under distress,” said Anchal Sharma, counselling psychologist with Fortis in Mohali, who also volunteers with its suicide prevention helpline.
“I attend 6-7 phone calls per hour of people going through sexual, inter-personal and emotional issues, all of which have increased because of the pandemic,” Sharma said.
Being stuck in houses has also made women and children more vulnerable to domestic abuse, while withdrawal symptoms caused by forced abstinence from substances such as alcohol has also led to people taking their own lives.
How to fix the broken system?
According to Dr Dabholkar, helplines are merely the first step in suicide prevention, and should be connected with integrated mental health service delivery.
Dabholkar said there was a need for a comprehensive national suicide prevention strategy with adequate monetary provisions.
“Frontline workers need adequate pay, training and proper supervision. Policies restricting access to means of suicide are also a need of the hour,” he said.