Mikhail, Anthony Furtado’s 17-year-old son, killed himself six years back because he thought he was going to fail his class XII exams. “Mikhail came back after the test, did a self-evaluation of his papers and thought he won’t pass," says Mumbai-based Anthony. His parents reassured him, and told him repeatedly that getting high marks was not everything. But later that day, Mikhail hanged himself.

Looking back, Anthony says: “Right from the beginning, Mikhail was in the red as far as academics went. He was always a hyperactive, need-a-solution-now kind of a child. Fortunately he had managed to channel his energy in athletics to an extent but that one time he simply gave up; he was unwilling to wait even for the results."

Ironically, Mikhail had secured 64%.

Mumbai-based Mahesh and Sarita Poddar’s only child Mini too killed herself 11 years ago; she was nearly 16. Mini had passed her class X exams and had scored an impressive 82%, but this score was way below her expectations, explain her parents.

Watch out: Don’t ignore your child’s turmoil and lack of interest in life

Meena Karagod, consultant, psychiatry, Columbia Asia Hospital, Bangalore, says academic pressure, peer pressure and relationship troubles are the main reasons for suicide. Another cause, she says, is the emergence of career-oriented families, which is leading to less parental supervision. This changing family structure in urban India is one of the reasons for the rise in suicide rate among the younger generation in cities.

A study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK, and others, published in June in The Lancet, shows the increasing magnitude of suicides in India, a country with one of the highest suicide rates in the world—3% (2,684) of the 95,335 surveyed deaths, of people aged 15 and above. The United Nations estimated that in 2010, around 187,000 people in India committed suicide, making suicides the second most common cause of death among young people in the country. In fact, with the maternal death rate coming down, suicides may soon become the leading cause.

Cries for help

Mumbai-based Harish Shetty, a psychiatrist associated with Maitri, an NGO which holds suicide prevention workshops in Mumbai, Pune, Vadodara and Goa, says parents, friends and relatives must look out when a person close to them says things like “I want to run away"; “no one loves me"; “I am worthless"; or the person talks about death, dying and giving away possessions.

“I had a brilliant 19-year-old student studying in a class that I took as a guest lecturer in a premier institute in Mumbai eight years ago," Dr Shetty recalls, “who started giving away his possessions; first it was his computer, then his best shirts, and so on. People started praising him, saying he was such a good boy; no one understood his cry for help. He was detaching himself from the world and soon enough, he killed himself."

Mahesh recollects how he missed out on the signs that Mini was sending out. “My wife had lost her mother so she was away and I simply could not judge the kind of tension Mini was going through. Every time she would bring up the topic of college, I would tell her to simply look ahead and forget the past. I did not really sit down and talk with her at length," he says. In hindsight, Mahesh feels there were clear signs through those last few days “that she was on the brink. Her food intake was very low (she would leave half-eaten plates all the time), her sleep was disturbed (her night lamp would be on even at 3am or 4am), she had stopped watching TV". She even showed Mahesh her lifeline, saying how short it was. “In turn, I simply fired her and showed her mine saying, see, mine is smaller. I understand now that this is not like a fever that you can judge with a thermometer."

Dr Karagod feels that “untreated mood swings lead to depression, which need assistance and supervision at the earliest possible". Sandy Dias Andrade, a Pune-based psychologist and founder-director of Just Being, an initiative in the field of suicide prevention, agrees. “When someone is feeling suicidal, it is a cry for help," she says. “Often if that person can be shown that there might be a way out other than suicide, he will take it. Suicide is not really a wish to die but to end psychological suffering. If the suffering is addressed, then yes, suicidal feelings dissipate." She counsels people to listen carefully to anyone who talks about suicide, or even jokes about it. “Often when people speak about what’s bothering them, we don’t let them speak and offer solutions or advice far too quickly," Andrade says. Let them explain their angst and try to get help for them as quickly as possible, she suggests.

Overcoming failure

Mahesh thinks that as parents he and his wife were over-protective about Mini. “Children should be allowed to go out and fall a few times, and cross a few barriers. They must learn to face the real world, and understand that failures are a part and parcel of life. This skill-set is essential for survival and often gets missed out when we cocoon our children too much. Also Mini was not into sports at all; I think sports can teach a child how to accept and overcome defeats," he says.

These are lessons that Mahesh shares with parents and children at schools and colleges where he now gives talks on how to prevent suicides among youngsters. Since Mini’s death, he has given more than a hundred talks.

Dr Shetty adds that young people today do not find the space to share “bad news" and this turmoil leads to helplessness and worthlessness. “They also feel guilty when they perceive that they just cannot live up to the hopes of the elders. We need to work at removing the feeling of worthlessness and hopelessness that creeps up far too easily in our children’s minds. And most importantly, we need to listen carefully and take action when they say they want to die," he adds.

“When Mikhail was about 13 we took him to a psychiatrist to find a solution for his hyperactivity," says Anthony. “While his treatment continued (for about a year and a half) he was doing very well and was slowly coming out of his shell. Then one day his friends saw him coming out of the psychiatrist’s clinic and teased him mercilessly, saying what do you need medicines for. Are you mad? He simply refused to eat those medicines from then on. He used to say ‘papa, I may be bad, but I am not mad’. He was much better so we also did not insist." According to Dr Shetty, in such cases the parents must go back to the psychiatrist treating the child and work with him to get the child back into treatment mode. One simply must not allow medication and other treatment to stop.

Anthony now counsels people via a helpline number for suicide prevention at The Vandrevala Foundation in Mumbai. “I tell everyone who calls on the helpline number, and even in my talks in schools: ‘Please call before you quit’," he says. “Please just try and talk to someone once before you take the step. This one call can change that decision and you can start life again. I wish Mikhail had also talked to someone."

•••••

Look out for these signs

Losing interest in activities

Feeling sad most of the day, every day

Losing or gaining weight unnecessarily

Sleeping too much or too little

Feeling drained all the time

Feeling worthless and restless all the time

Having difficulty in concentrating, making decisions or remembering things

Having repeated thoughts of death and suicide.

—Niti Pall, chairperson and managing director, Pathfinder Health India, and adviser to India Health Progress (IHP), a call-for-action forum working to improve healthcare access across India.

•••••

Suicide prevention helplines

Connecting, Pune 18002094353 (2-8pm)

The Vandrevala Foundation, mental health helpline, Mumbai, 18602662345 and 022-25706000 (24x7)

Sneha India, Chennai, 044-24640050/0060 (24x7); and email help@snehaindia.org

Aasra, Mumbai, 022-27546669 (24x7)

All numbers are toll- free. Befrienders India (www.befriendersindia. net/center.html) has a list of many more helplines.

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