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A spate of recent suicides among students and the ongoing worry about this mind-numbing phenomenon is a cause of national concern. Over 100,000 Indians commit suicide every year, and the number has only risen over the past two decades, say experts. Worse, over 71% of suicides are by people below the age of 44. While suicides are attributed to acute mental agony, the trauma on those who are left behind is not less. Savita Narayan profiles a Pune-based NGO called Connecting… which helps people cope with the effect of suicide on the survivors
“We had forgotten to smile. The joy had gone out of our lives,” says Arnavaz Damania, a survivor affected by the suicide of a relative. The impact of the event made her realise the need for counselling not just for a survivor but also the larger circle of family and friends. “We felt lost and were just going from day to day, automatically doing our chores. I’ve always been a positive person and so I began to look for ways to improve the situation. I had to help even if it was the one family," says Ms. Damania.
She surfed the Internet, seeking people or institutions to approach. AFSP, the American Federation of Suicide Prevention, put her in touch with Dr Aruna Jha in Chicago who runs the Asian-American Suicide Prevention Initiative. Dr Jha conducted a seminar in Pune on awareness creation which led to the forming of a group.
India, China and Japan account for 30% of worldwide suicides according to the World Health Organisation—and the numbers are increasing yearly. Indian society has changed dramatically over the past decade. Increased pressure for good performance at students' exams, maintaining peak results at the workplace, loosening of family ties and lack of good interpersonal relationships are some reasons.
In 2005, Ms Damania set up Connecting... at Pune, with trained volunteers to offer counselling, suicide prevention and facilitation programmes to create awareness of coping strategies and healthy outlets for intense emotions such as anger and frustration. The entity also interacts with survivors and counsels families of suicide victims to manage the trauma.
A suicide attempt is the reaction of a person unable to cope with unbearable psychological pain. Before reaching this juncture, the person usually explores ways to make the pain more bearable but does not find a solution on his own. He lacks both inner resources to cope as well as a perspective on how to approach the problematic issue. Often, he undergoes long periods of suffering in isolation before giving indirect indications to near and dear that he's reached the end of his tether. Connecting... is a neutral point of contact for the suicidal; the help lines offer empathy that is usually unavailable to him. The initial contact is from the suicidal caller or a sympathetic well-wisher. Treatment is possible only when the initiative comes from him. Connecting... offers trained and skilful counselling, ensuring that the person, at the first instance, is calmed and that the immediate crisis of peak vulnerability is deflected. In subsequent contact sessions, through empathy and positive reinforcement, the caller realises on his own accord that life is worth living and that workable solutions to his problems can be found.
Support for survivors is also essential to prevent the recurrence of an attempt. Survivors usually harbour feelings of guilt. The stigma of societal judgement makes them opt for empathetic counselling on a one-on-one basis. Group sessions are useful for victims' families encouraging the sharing of experiences, of healing together to start the grieving process. The discussion is led by the facilitator.
Workshops are conducted for the police and hospital workers to modify their approach and improve interactions with victims, the affected families and survivors. Connecting... is actively engaged in sensitising the general public towards stress and interpersonal relationships. These programmes take place in schools, housing societies, corporate offices—any group of people who want healthier interactions in their daily lives. The sessions are very impactful and tailor-made, taking the form of role-playing and demonstrations. Music and Art therapy is also offered.
Connecting... has the immediate need to expand its existing helpline facility from 6 hours to 24 hours with more phone lines, trained counsellors and media exposure; setting up a media watchdog to monitor and ensure empathetic and factual reporting of suicides; the setting up of emergency cells in hospitals which sensitively handle incoming cases, the subsequent legal aspects and documentation.
Connecting... helps the suicidal and their families in and around Pune. There are still hundreds of others in India who need their reassuring touch.
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Krishnamurthy Vijayan visits a school for mentally challenged children in Aurangabad and imbibes a joyous lesson on caring and sharing
Mentally retarded, autistic, mongoloid… Okay, you and I are politically correct people, so we would never say that: we call them special children. But what do parents do when they are the chosen ones for bringing up a special child?
Hide ‘it’ away, appoint a nurse, curse fate, visit God-men or silently train themselves to teach the child to fend for itself? I have seen many different approaches to handling this gift, and I won’t judge because I don’t know how I would have handled it. But, last month, I met a group of people in Aurangabad (better known for Ajanta, Ellora and Paithani saris) who showed me another option: build a large joint family around the child.
The Swayamsiddh family is unique: a group of couples in Aurangabad, who had special children, decided to do something about it. They came together and started a school to teach, train, develop and provide therapy to each child and make it part of a large joint family of similar children; thus, forever banishing the loneliness and depression that all too often they fall prey to. Swayamsiddh allows them to enjoy life and live it to its fullest.
The school is a little way off the Walmi-Waluj Road in Aurangabad. The first thing that strikes you is how the modest two-storey structure appears to sweep jauntily into the sky like a little concrete kite festooned with colourful pictures. It was built on fees that the eminent singer Jagjit Singh donated after a Swayamsiddh concert, on property donated by Somnath Sakhare (after a chat on a flight with Harish Baijal, the mentor of this project).
The building reflects the remarkable vision of its ‘joint family’. There is a gym equipped with specially imported equipment to train children in the rigours of their daily life—balance, motor coordination and strength for basic functions. In the classrooms, teacher-parents train their children gradually, from painting between lines, to connecting dots, to making beautiful handicrafts. This therapeutic education for children with a range of challenges has achieved remarkable results. For some sales, the children are able to keep their own accounts; some have won dance competitions; for a few, even sitting up is an achievement. A boy who could not even be propped up initially responds to physiotherapy, while a little deaf-mute girl has bones too brittle even for physiotherapy and has to be handled delicately, like old parchment. Yet, the principal, who took us to this room, and the teacher-parent who entered a little later, greeted her as though she were just another baby. Was it my imagination that the child seemed to respond to their warm vibes?
That these children make eye contact, support each other and are not afraid to touch or be touched is another achievement: it is because all the adults around them give and accept hugs from them. Yes, everything is an achievement in this joint family.
How do I enumerate the imagination of these parents? They organise workshops for siblings who may feel neglected by their parents’ focus on the special child; workshops for grandparents to help them support these parents; Amitabh Bachchan, Shankar Mahadevan and Adnan Sami ‘Nites’ in remote Aurangabad; treating each other’s children as their own—the list is diverse and endless.
And that brings me to Harish Baijal, a self-effacing policeman who is currently DCP (anti-corruption) in Nashik, better known to us as the man who launched a crusade against drunk-driving. Through his efforts, Swayamsiddh gets some unusual sponsors. That’s what he does—instead of using his contacts and his chair for furthering his career, he has decided to use it for furthering the cause of this remarkable group of people. So, if you get an SMS from a policeman, don’t tremble; call back and join the family.
Vivek Singh Special School
C/o Dr Vandana Mehta,
Gut No.76, Walmi–Waluj Link Road,
Waladgaon, Aurangabad 431136
Tel: +91 240 2040027
Email: [email protected]
A private citizen’s effort to preserve India’s rich but crumbling heritage
Crumbling vintage mansions, ill-maintained forts and ruined temples are sights that all of us encounter from time to time. A closer examination, however, reveals vestiges of artistry and stateliness that are hidden by the subsequent lack of care. We tut-tut and go our way thinking somebody ought to do something about it. Dr T Satyamurthy, formerly from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and Archaeology Department of Kerala, set up REACH Foundation at Chennai. His team of volunteers at REACH believe that each of us is the ‘somebody’ who must reclaim our heritage with pride.
It all began after Dr Satyamurthy’s retirement. He says, “Young techies in the 25-35 age group sporadically approached me, wanting to learn more about scripts they had noticed on temple walls or the history of particular edifices. I realised there was a felt need for the study of history in a modern context and the adaptation of modern technology to preserve the ancient. We owe it to the next generation not to squander our collective legacy.”
REACH’s aim is the renovation and preservation of India’s heritage of buildings which is varied yet unique to each region, influenced by and constructed to suit local conditions. Only a fraction of it is preserved; much of it is dilapidated and requires urgent attention.
Many heritage buildings are in villages whose populations are alarmingly ignorant and alienated from their surroundings. The modern Indian educational curriculum also lays emphasis on career development courses rather than on culture-development that fosters heightened awareness of the society we live in.
REACH wants to stem this rot and increase heritage awareness. To begin with, REACH focused on Tamil Nadu’s 70,000 to 80,000 temples of which around 30% are ancient. Its diverse and well-qualified team comprises epigraphists, history enthusiasts, restorers, lime & mortar experts, ASI-trained workers and scholars in disciplines like mathematics, geology, temple architecture, painting and sculpture. The intent is to involve villagers in renovation as well as maintenance of the edifices in their vicinity. Training in preservation and restoration techniques is imparted through practical demonstrations and computerised presentations. Once the blueprints are prepared, traditional, time-proven methods and materials as in the original structure are used for renovation; not sand-blasting, cement, acrylic paints or enamels.
Since 2006, 14 temples have been cleaned and restored with budgets ranging from Rs20 lakh to Rs2 crore. Villagers contribute a proportion of the corpus in kind or labour towards asset-building for the community. The rest comes from donations. The restoration of the Kailasanathar temple at Uttaramerur, built in 742 CE, is being done in collaboration with the civil engineering department at IIT Madras. It will be completely restored and re-dedicated in April 2010.
REACH now has a team of 60 volunteers working in Karnataka and Kerala. It also offers training through the Academy of Archaeology and Sciences of Ancient India (AASAI), including regular classes on reading inscriptions in ancient Tamil.
It has conducted a symposium for Heritage Wardens and also held an international seminar on remote sensing of archaeological sites in collaboration with ASI-Chennai circle and Bharathidasan University, Tiruchirappalli. Itinerant devotees forming local Uzavarappani groups traditionally undertake temple cleaning and are co-opted into the effort after training them. Interested villagers have also trained as guides. REACH conducts heritage tours in and around Chennai and proposes to introduce audio guides to important heritage sites in Tamil Nadu. It needs volunteers to make the movement pan-Indian by taking it to varied heritage sites.
26/43 Janakiraman Street
Chennai 600 033
Email: [email protected]