Mehfooz Ahmad*, 56, was battling the social stigma of her daughter running away with her boyfriend days before she was arranged to marry another man.
He became discouraged and over time stopped seeing his friends and started having suicidal thoughts.
On a cold September evening, Ahmad locked the front door of his house and went up to his room with a bottle of toxic zinc phosphide, intending to end his life.
However, he instead took his smartphone and searched for “Zindagi”, which means life in Hindi.
It is also the name of a suicide prevention hotline recently established by the Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (IMHANS) in Srinagar, the capital of Indian-administered Kashmir.
“Hello can you help me?” Ahmad pleaded.
A young psychologist took his call and they talked for two hours until Ahmad finally calmed down.
“I built on protective factors while talking about the future of her younger daughter and son,” recalls Zoya Mir, a clinical psychologist who leads the Zindagi project at IMHANS.
“I also found that his religious belief gave him a survival instinct. Therefore, I overdid it until he calmed down,” he told DW.
Breaking the Stigma of Suicide
In Muslim-majority Kashmir, suicide is stigmatized, which experts say prevents people from seeking professional help for their mental health.
“There is no equivalent word for suicide in the Kashmiri language. It shows how rare the phenomenon was in our culture,” said Dr Syed Mehvish Yawar, a psychiatrist associated with the Zindagi project.
The helpline was created to end the stigma around suicide and to encourage people to talk openly about suicide and seek help, Yawar told DW.
According to the government’s Crime Gazette for 2021, Indian-administered Kashmir recorded 586 suicide cases last year and 472 in 2020.
The region has a higher suicide rate than other Indian states and recorded 2,612 deaths by suicide from 2010 to 2018. Nearly 290 people die each year by suicide according to figures from India’s National Crime Records Bureau.
Some studies estimate that up to 45% of the population of 7 million suffer from some kind of mental distress.
A 2016 report by international NGO ActionAid and IMHANS found that mental disorders were particularly prevalent among vulnerable groups.
The high rate of mental illness was mainly attributed to poor access to treatment, stigma and, at the root of it all, conflict.
Ask for help
But Yawar estimated that the Zindagi helpline had helped prevent nearly 400 suicides after people called for counseling and psychological support.
The project involves a group of clinical psychologists, who are mostly young women, providing services to improve mental well-being, such as suicide prevention counselling, first aid, psychological support, distress and the management of psychological crises.
Zindagi’s manager, Mir, said the helpline mainly receives calls from teenagers and young people with low self-esteem. She said many were vulnerable to suicide because the ongoing conflict in the region had taken a toll on their mental health.
However, half of the calls received were related to heartbreak, financial difficulties in the family, failed marriages or insufficient parental expectations, she added.
An unhappy marriage
Mir recalled how a 32-year-old woman, Maria* from South Kashmir, yelled at him, saying no one could understand the trauma she had been through in her married life.
Although she married the love of her life, Maria was sexually and physically abused by her husband for a long time and was pressured into attempting suicide, Mir said.
“Maria was rude to us and repeatedly shouted that she wanted to kill herself to get rid of the pain,” Mir said.
“We counseled her on how she can combat the trauma and remove the toxicity from her relationship with her husband.”
The next day, Maria came to IMHANS for counseling and said she had already made 16 suicide attempts.
“Timely counseling can prevent them from attempting suicide, but unfortunately they usually don’t get that support from family members or friends,” clinical psychologist Masood Maqbool explained.
Maqbool added that the Zindagi helpline had stopped nearly 99% of callers from attempting suicide.
Mental health is widely misunderstood in Kashmir, which had no psychiatric hospital until 1989. Relatives often turn to a religious healer, but this can complicate the situation for people with mental health problems.
Although Zindagi healthcare workers have helped prevent many suicides, their own mental health can also be affected by having to deal with suicidal callers.
Days after Ahmad’s suicide attempt was foiled, police announced that a 52-year-old man had died after jumping into the Jhelum River in Srinagar.
“My heart sank and I started crying after hearing the news, thinking it might be Ahmad,” Mir said. “We broke protocol and retrieved his phone number from our data to call him. […] But luckily it wasn’t him.”
A psychologist, who also deals with suicide callers, told DW on condition of anonymity that often counselors want to be lifesavers, but the fear of failure often leads to emotional trauma.
“The situation of a person who is on the verge of suicide would give anyone goosebumps,” he said, adding that not knowing if he would be able to help save someone was very stressful for psychologists and counselors.
He said an important way to manage the emotional burden was to talk to colleagues about his own mental health issues.
Editor’s Note: If you are having suicidal thoughts or contemplating harming yourself, please seek professional help. You can find information on where to find this help, wherever you are in the world, at www.befrienders.org
*Favorite names have been changed to protect identities.
Edited by: Keith Walker
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