Several of the plastic chairs inside the Aasra office lie vacant at 6pm on a Sunday evening. Johnson Thomas and the two other volunteers could be expected to be crestfallen. But after years of trying to recruit volunteers, they are now used to the disappointing mathematics of Aasra’s weekly orientation sessions for new volunteers.
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“Six people had called up and said they’d like to come. We are happy at least two people came,” says Thomas, a freelance art and film writer, with an enigmatic half-smile that is his default facial expression. Every Sunday evening, Aasra, a 10-year-old helpline for people with suicidal tendencies, conducts an orientation session for potential volunteers. The sessions take place in front of a well-used blackboard, streaked with several layers of white chalk markings, in the cramped and slightly claustrophobic Aasra office in Koparkhairane, Mumbai.
During the hour-long session, Thomas and other volunteers take potential volunteers through a brief profile of Aasra, the process involved in becoming a volunteer and, as candidly as possible, try to convey a true picture of the work involved.
Aasra is part of an international network of suicide helplines supported by the UK-based charity organization Samaritans—the global network is called Befrienders International. Established in 1953 by Chad Varah, the organization’s prime activity is a telephone helpline that is open to anyone with emotional trouble, especially those that could potentially lead to suicides. Troubled individuals are encouraged to call in and speak to a volunteer who is specially trained to listen and offer support.
In Koparkhairane, Aasra volunteers run the helpline 6 hours a day, seven days a week, between 3pm and 9pm. Volunteers man the line in 3-hour shifts on most days. “Normally, we get around seven or eight calls a day,” says Thomas. But during school examinations and result declaration season—“You could call it ‘peak’ season for want of a term”— Aasra has to handle 70 to 80 calls a day.Schoolchildren are the single largest contingent among Aasra’s callers. The 20 volunteers end up working overtime handling calls from students.
Taking a call is anything but a matter of speaking softly in a soothing voice. “You have to be a friend: non-judgemental, non-intrusive. And never give advice. Most kids already get enough of that from their parents and teachers. They don’t want even the helpline to do that,” explains Thomas. And to make sure that every “listener” sticks to these basic tenets, all volunteers are made to go through a six-month training programme involving classroom sessions, group activities, role-plays and mock telephone calls.
When asked to share his experiences with callers, Thomas is hesitant. Confidentiality is central to the Aasra’s—and Samaritans’— scheme of things. Callers are not asked to log their names or addresses and each call is treated as an independent engagement. Callers can come to the Aasra office for a face-to-face, but due to a shortage of volunteers, Thomas says, they try to avoid that as far as possible.
Lifesavers: Aasra volunteers at a public outreach programme in Mumbai on the occasion of World Mental Health Day. Ashesh Shah / Mint
When pressed, he talks about how students, normally children in classes X and XII, call in during exam times. “It is a period of transition for these kids. And they feel scared. They call up saying they haven’t been able to study...or they’ve done badly in the exams.” The children then confess that they are scared of their parents’ reactions. Aasra volunteers first let the children speak their minds and focus on the issue bothering them—often just getting someone to listen to them prevents these children from doing anything drastic. Thomas says about 40% of the children call back for further help. “We don’t keep a database of callers. But we do know the frequent callers.” Calling regularly, though, is not something Aasra encourages. “We want them to become self-reliant over time.”
One of Thomas’ Aasra colleagues, an employee with Central Railways, relates how the volunteer training programme often ends up helping a lot of volunteers cope with their personal issues too. Thomas then reiterates how the rewards are unmatched: “When you do a good job here you save a life. Almost instantly.”
After the meeting ends, and both potential candidates leave, promising to call back, Thomas and his companions pack up after ensuring the phones have been set to auto-forward calls to volunteers’ cellphones: “This way, not everyone has to come down to Koparkhairane to help.”
What Aasra needs right now is both visibility and volunteers. After the meeting, the trio walks me down the road to a teashop. As Thomas sips on chai, he expresses his hope for Aasra: “We are happy with what we do now. But if we grow we can help more people. More children will see our telephone number and more children will call. If they do, we will make sure that there is always someone on the other end of the line.”
If you want to volunteer
Those who wish to be “listeners” have to mandatorily go through a six-month training programme, over weekends only. All volunteers are expected to put in 3-6 hours of work a week, including at least one 3-hour shift on the phone and additional time for team meetings and any outreach programmes. Knowledge of Marathi or Hindi is desirable. You can also help Aasra by assisting it with seminars, outreach programmes and public events. Just turn up for the weekend orientation programme to know what you can do. For details, call Johnson Thomas at 022-27546667
Rs5,000 for this charity can
Pay a month’s telephone and electricity bills
Pay three weeks’ rent for the Aasra office
Help them to conduct 10 batches of school outreach programmes where Aasra volunteers hold seminars and study sessions with schoolchildren
Buy five months of study material and refreshments for an orientation programme batch of 12 volunteers
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