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Suicide is a taboo subject for conversation. Particularly what makes a person want to commit suicide or what to say in the face of their pain.

“A man devoid of hope and conscious of being so has ceased to belong to the future.”
― Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays

Suicide is a subject almost everyone has thought of at some point or the other. Almost everyone has wondered what it would be like to end our own life or how it could be done without confronting the great fear - pain, suffocation or other discomforts. Yet suicide remains a taboo subject. The feelings behind suicide. What makes someone commit suicide. We can talk statistics or prevention or helplines, but in the face of actual pain that drives a person to suicide, we have no skills. There is a difference between contemplating suicide and planning to commit suicide. An important one. The first is a fairly common and natural response to unbearable negative emotions. The other is an irreversible action.

I admit I have often considered suicide. I have written about suicide before too. From a perspective of statistics, from a perspective of understanding widespread distress needing political answers, from a perspective of empathy when I read about suicide, from a perspective of failing to support and grieving when someone I know commits suicide and I have also considered suicide as an option to end my own life when I was very sad. Yet, whenever I have tweeted about the subject, I have immediately got responses that amount to stopstopstopstopstopstopstopstopSTOP! It is so immediate that it would be hilarious if the subject were not grave. I have got helpline numbers as replies, I have got advice to not let dark thoughts enter my mind.

Hello! I write and tweet and comment and contemplate issues of human rights abuse. How in the world can one do that without having any dark thoughts? If I were planning to commit suicide, why would I be tweeting instead of finding myself a rope? I understand that it can sometimes be a cry for help by a distraught person, but if the rest of the words are perfectly normal, where is the harm in reading to find out what is being said?

Because here is the thing. Even if a person were tweeting about suicide publicly as a last ditch call for attention and help, the last thing they'd need is to be told to shut up or a sea of platitudes. What they would be needing is an empathetic listener who cares.

What exactly is this fear of talking about suicides?

“The thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets through many a dark night.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche

I admit I have spent a great deal of time contemplating committing suicide over the years. As in killing myself. I have been in unhappy relationships involving heartbreak, I've been in an abusive marriage with an alcoholic, I've been a broke single mother of a disabled child. Despair and depression are no strangers. And yet I am here, typing this post.

I have actually found thinking about suicide in great detail helpful. Instead of fearing the pain of death (and thus possibly taking a rash step "while I have the courage" maybe after a glass or two of vodka), I've gone and researched methods of suicide. What would cause the least pain? What are the consequences of failure? What is the best method so that it causes least pain and least risk of failing and living with permanent damage? And anyone who knows me knows that when I say research, I mean obsessive information finding till I am convinced I know the subject in and out without actual experience. Enough to make a very well considered decision. On and off, when I'm in utter despair, I've gone and rechecked all the information. And yet here I am, typing all this.

Is this a guarantee I will never commit suicide? No. But it pretty much guarantees that I have given it thorough thought and not found it a better tradeoff for now. It guarantees that if I do it, it will not be a thoughtless impulse, but a decision I take about my life after considering all options I have.

So how has contemplating suicide helped me?

By giving me an option. By giving me an exit from the pain. By giving me the concrete information that if all this gets unbearable, I still have the option to exit. In the process, a miracle happens. I am no longer cornered by my despair. I always have the cheat route out. And because I know that, I am never out of options. I lose the fear of making attempts to change my circumstances that could fail.  Just allowing myself to spend time thinking about ending myself is a catharsis. If no one else, at least I am acknowledging how bad things are. I am listening to myself. It helps me feel heard. It gives me a vocabulary for describing my situation when asking for help. No, I don't mean "I am suicidal, help me or else." I mean "This, this and this is the reason for my despair. I am not able to see functional ways out. I need help." - because hello, I've gone through all the reasons in my contemplation and have them now sorted out in my head.

And sometimes, in a very cynical way, the contemplations have saved me. If I don't care whether I live or die, why not try this one last thing or the other? If I hit a dead end, I can always die.

“Killing myself was a matter of such indifference to me that I felt like waiting for a moment when it would make some difference.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Dream of a Ridiculous Man

Here is an example how. When I was younger, my emotions were more volatile. Taking what I felt seriously and giving it serious thought helped me see things more clearly and invariably, I ended up thinking that if there was any hope, I could use it and if there wasn't, well, I could always die. But the well thought out option being there and not at any threat of being taken off the table gave me the confidence to know I could opt for it any time and there was no need to do it right now. I could afford to wait and see. I am truly grateful no one immediately tried to stop me at such times, or I'd have been tempted to use the opportunity before someone blocked it from me.

Now I am older. I have a young disabled child. Whoever knows me knows that I'd chew my arm off before I allowed anything to harm him. Well, losing a mom would definitely harm him. So suicide is totally not an option any more. At least while he is alive. He needs me. Period. Again, if I hadn't thought this through, I could have been at risk of giving up without considering the impact.

In some of my more selfish and melodramatic ways, I've even thought "What will be, will be" If I am not there, someone or the other will care for my son, though I can't imagine who, right now. But then, in such a melodramatic moment, the desire is also to leave a lasting mark on the world when I die. And oops, it is not "orphaned kid in moment of despair". I'd like to be remembered for something better, thank you very much.

Whatever it is. Others may have their own reasoning. Still others may come to a well considered decision that suicide is actually a good choice for them, When my father was dying of Parkinson's, he had the option of looking forward to an indeterminate bed ridden existence with little control over his body, being bored out of his wits and too exhausted to do anything about it but to wait to die. He begged me to kill him almost every week. It is illegal and I have two more dependents, or I would definitely have arranged for him to be freed as per his will if it were legal. Others do it out of poverty. Starvation. When the alternative is to live in debt and watch your family suffer with no hope of ever providing for them in sight, it can be a brutal life to look forward to, and death may simply be a matter of running out of the ability to fight.

“Let them think what they liked, but I didn't mean to drown myself. I meant to swim till I sank -- but that's not the same thing.”
― Joseph Conrad, The Secret Sharer and other stories

Whatever it is, however it plays out, a suicide is not about dying or exiting the world, it is about escaping unbearable torment. A person who feels unheard and uncared for, is unlikely to respond to a panicked flood of platitudes that s/he has heard a hundred times that drowns their voice all over again, even in the contemplation of death.

How agonized we are by how people die. How untroubled we are by how they live. ~ P. Sainath

My suggestion is that we all examine what this fear is that stops us from listening on hearing that word. Because the lives of many around us could depend on how we respond to their pain. If someone has made a well considered decision to die, there isn't much we can do about it, but if someone is screaming into a void of despair, perhaps us offering a listening ear will give them the space to be heard, and in the process get a clearer view of their situation.

What do you think?


Helpline numbers and other useful information for the Chennai flood crisis

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As the election fever hots up, the BJP - seen as the front-runner across most opinion polls - is dishing out a campaign which is a heady cocktail of Hindutva and promises of development. Having comprehensively failed in 2009 when it tried to make the Advani-Manmohan Singh fight a personality, rather than an ideology contest, the BJP this time seems to have wisened up.

Though, like Advani, Modi's campaign too projects him as a larger-than-life figure, with the most recent slogan 'Har Har Modi' giving him the place of 'Mahadev', his PR machinery is usually quick to balance such outward expressions of Hindutva with something more palatable for the urban masses - such as economic growth. Most recently, the focus has now shifted to women's safety, which in post-Nirbhaya India is yet another urban buzzword.

While supporters hail Modi for the development Gujarat has witnessed under his stewardship, critics often say that his 'development messiah' image is an organized effort to wash off the stains of 2002. The BJP usually cites the clean-chit given to Modi by the SIT to rubbish such claims, but his image isn't spotlessly clean across all parameters. In the context of women's safety, nothing can be a bigger indictment of the 'Modi Model of Governance' than the conviction of former Gujarat cabinet Minister for Women and Child Development - Maya Kodnani - in the 2002 Naroda Patiya massacre.

One would imagine that the fact that Modi not only defended, but also assigned the WCD portfolio to a woman who later went on to be convicted of orchestrating the massacre of several innocent women and children, and the embarrassment that he faced in the Snoopgate scandal would make Modi a pariah when it comes to women's safety - but apparently PR, and collective amnesia around election season work wonders!

Not only is Modi not seen as a man who does not take the safety of women and children seriously, we are now seeing the emergence of a Ramboesque image of NaMo in this regard as well! But how serious is Modi about Women's safety indeed?

Let's give Modi the benefit of doubt and look beyond the Kodnani verdict though. Let's examine what he has done for the safety of women in Gujarat post 2009. Here, two prominent initiatives standout - both of them being helplines - the first being '1091 Police HEART Helpline for Women and Children' launched in 2013 and other being 'Abhayam Women's Helpline - 181' which was launched just last month. The focus of this post is the latter but before that let's examine the initiatives pertaining to the well-being of women that were present before Abhayam.

Gujarat, prior to the launch of Abhayam had already launched a widely acclaimed 108 Medical Emergency Helpline in 2010, which is run by GVK EMRI (which as the press release for Abhayam claims is also present in 16 other states in India). While 108 wasn't a women centric service, there were positive reports that suggested that the services were being utilized majorly by tribal women. Soon enough, Modi launched an additional service named Khilkhilahat which utilized the phased out 108 vans in conjunction once again with GVK-EMRI in 2012. And finally the HEART Helpline was launched early 2013. Between 108, 1091 HEART Helpline and Khilkhilahat, one can say Gujarat has a sufficient number of women-centric services. Which brings to the question - why another helpline?

One might argue thar Abhayam is merely Gujarat's installment of the 181 helpline mandated by the centre post-Nirbhaya. But that is where the question of whom it plans to benefit emerges. While the 108 helpline follows a PPP model across the country, 181 is essentially meant to be run by the State Government, as was the case in Delhi. The Government of Gujarat, on the other hand, adopted the PPP model in this case as well, by roping in GVK-EMRI once again. While GVK has successfully run medical emergency helpline services across the country,  the question to be asked is what expertise did GVK bring to the table with regard to women's safety? None at all. In fact, if insider information is to be believed, the development of the helpline protocols, and the training for the employees was outsourced to external NGOs and institutions like the Tata Institute of Social Sciences by GVK. This makes GVKs involvement in the whole project questionable.

While it is true that the centre had directed each state to introduce a helpline service for women, Gujarat could have done without one, given the numerous helpline services that already existed. In fact, even a cursory glance at the press releases of 1091 Police HEART Helpline and 'Abhayam Women's Helpline - 181 reveals an extensive amount of duplication of services.

For example, both HEART and Abhayam promise 'rescue in emergency situations'. While the press release for Abhayam states that it will be synchronized with the existing helpline services, it appears that both helplines have independent rescue services. While HEART is essentially a Police helpline, Abhayam's idea of 'rescue-officers' is rather vague. Further, the HEART helpline clearly mentions that the location of the caller is tracked automatically, regardless of the phone being used. Abhayam's stance on the same is not clear. However, if a service which purports itself to be a counselling helpline does track the location of its callers, while at the same time promising "that information given at the time of call will be kept undisclosed" we are heading back towards Snoopgate territory.

But that's not the only way Abhayam makes Modi's committment towards these issues suspect. While the helpline went live only in February 2014, recruitment for the same happened as early as October 2013 (see image). Insider information reveals that the recruitment and in fact the entire training process for approximately 50-60 staff members was completed within the month of October itself. In other words, the helpline could very well have been launched as early as November 2013. However this could not be done as Narendra Modi was on the campaign trail. In other words, an additional project which essentially duplicates a service already in place was delayed by 4 months as Modi was unavailable to inaugurate the service. What's more is that Modi himself did not inaugurate the service in the end!

While the BJP criticized the Aam Aadmi Party for the shutting down of the 181 Helpline in Delhi, despite Kejriwal's claims that he had sanctioned payment for the helpline staff till 31st March 2014 - one wonders how the BJP justifies keeping 60 idle staff members on payrolls for 4 months.

If one were to calculate the cost to the taxpayer for the salaries paid to these staff members for the 4 months they were idle, it works out upwards of Rs. 30 lakhs (the salaries for approx 60 helpline counsellors are believed to be around Rs.15000/-). While 30 lakhs is small change around election season, it is still a waste nonetheless.  On the other hand, if the employees were not paid until the helpline began, that would be grossly unjust as the delay was not a fault on their part. At the same time, while GVK-EMRI claims to be not-for-profit initiative, there is no clear information with regard to the amount paid to GVK for these initiatives.

Abhayam also has a bizarre age cut-off for access of its services (14 years and above), and initially will launch only in Ahmedabad city, Surat City and Gandhinagar District. The helpline however is being touted as a 24*7 state level free helpline.

While the intention is certainly noble, the fact that (yet) another PPP has been handed over to GVK-EMRI which has no demonstrable experience in women's safety, the launch of HEART helpline merely a year ago and the utterly limited scope of Abhayam - makes one wonder whether Modi is serious about Gujarat, or about the well-being of women at large, or whether the helpline is yet another pre-poll publicity stunt!

Here is what is going on with the fake article about emotional distress helplines that Free Press Journal. There are mixed messages galore.

After some attempt to fob off the fake reporting as the helplines giving quotes and then denying later, the reporter admitted that she had no proof of the interviews whatsoever. And it isn't just about the content of the interviews, she doesn't even have proof of contacting the helplines for quotes at all. Instead, they are asking for confidential call records of the helpline that would jeopardize the confidentiality of thousands of callers. One really has to wonder at the need for this needle and haystack process. If the reporter knows the time of call and number she called from, the records for that number will have the call. What is the point in demanding a vast swathe of helpline numbers as though the reporter doesn't know her own number?

fake journalism by Free Press journal
Fake article at Free Press Journal invents a trend, data to prove it and quotes by experts too!

The journalist did admit that she did not have any evidence of having asked for a quote from anyone in that article as per Paras Sharma. Yet the editors continue to call it a case where either party could be lying.

This is fairly serious, but astonishingly, the organization has gone into a cover up mode with bizarre replies from editors ranging from "she is young and just beginning her career" to "neither of you can prove". The article itself has been taken down from the website. However the iCall wants a formal retraction in print as well as at the url of the missing article, as the allegations of the article raise a doubt on their professionalism, not to mention creating a perception among readers that their anonymity may not be safe with helplines and thus prevent people from seeking help. This, the Free Press Journal refuses to retract its story.

Paras Sharma of iCall helpline is understandably livid. He insists that if the article was published in the print edition, a retraction in the print edition is required. After the evasions and denials and cover ups, even an admission of not having any evidence at all of having interviewed is being termed as having no proof that the article was fake. He intends to approach the Press Council in this matter as well as The Hoot, and will continue to press for a retraction.

I am perplexed by this seemingly adamant refusal to uphold journalistic standards by retracting reports that get proved unreliable. Is the Free Press Journal seriously saying that it does not retract articles known to be false for the sake of sympathy for the person who faked it? What is the integrity of the publication and why should anyone buy it? One wonders if it is indeed a junior reporter who made up the false story, or is she being shoved under the bus to protect some liar with power in the organization? I truly cannot imagine a news publishing organization trading its reputation for a new recruit. Should I downgrade my already low opinion of news "outlets" further?

Here is the latest email I received from Paras. I have not been in touch with anyone from the Free Press Journal.

Dear Vidyut,

I am writing to you to seek your help in bringing the Free Press Journal to justice. On Valentine's Day this year, the Free Press Journal published a story written by Swati Jha, which I have attached with this email.

As you can see, I have been quoted in this story in my professional capacity. Now what is the problem with this story, you ask? Well, the reporter never contacted me for any such story.

The whole quote, along with all the stats are completely made up. What's more, the other helpline which has been quoted in the story - Aasra, has also said that the reporter never called him up for the story. The three case studies as it stands, are absolutely fake.

I have written to the Editorial board and went through the entire hierarchy going from the DGM - Mr. TGP Krishnan, the city editor Mr. Anil Singh, right to the Editor-in-Chief Mr. Shailender Dhawan.

The paper was initially apologetic and cooperative. They took down the story from the website and as you can see now the page throws a 404 http://freepressjournal.in/helplines-flooded-with-desperate-calls-before-v-day/

After relentless pressure from my end, and after you wrote about this, the journalist personally wrote to me apologizing for her story and even admitting that she has no proof for her story!

We said that since our organization had been quoted publicly, a private takedown of the story and an email apology shall not suffice. Despite repeated assurances, the editor-in-chief today has refused to print a retraction saying that we have not provided clinching proof that the story was fake.

He essentially says that its our word against his reporter and if we question their journalistic ethics, they will question our ethics saying that we dont respect client confidentiality and freely share the information with the media.

He has told me 'Don't waste my time' and that 'I should pursue the matter in any way I deem fit'.

Some more facts in conjunction to this case:

1) The reporter did not have my personal number
2) She thought my name was Prashant as opposed to Paras
3) She has no call-log or audio transcript of the conversation
4) She has no proof to establish she spoke to ANY of the people mentioned in the story

While we are contemplating our future course of action, I would appreciate any support/guidance you can offer in fighting this unethical newspaper.


Update: The Free Press Journal did publish an apology and retraction on their front page.