Kumbharwada, a hamlet of potters in Mumbai's Dharavi slums, suffered from a very high rate of suicides some three decades ago. Men, women, young boys and girls or even senior citizens would just walk to the nearby railway tracks and end their lives seemingly at the slightest provocation.
"The reasons were flimsy - a domestic quarrel, neighbourhood brawl over water, eve teasing or poking fun at others. The alleged victim would just saunter down to the railway tracks and lie down for the next train to run him/her over," Sion Hospital Acting Dean Suleman Merchant told IANS.
The alarmed locals finally came together and did something - they constructed a wall four or five feet tall - blocking access to the Central Railway's harbour railway line.
"Nearly 25 years since the wall was erected, there has not been a single such suicide. A small community initiative helped save many precious human lives," Merchant told IANS.
He, along with prominent medicos, NGOs, psychiatrists, social organisations and individuals, last week kicked off Mumbai's "first mass social initiative" to curb rising suicides in this western metropolis, dubbed India's financial and entertainment capital, at a workshop to train some 300 community leaders in the initiative.
Renowned psychiatrist Harish Shetty pointed out that by alertness on the part of individuals, family members, friends, relatives, neighbours, and referring to social workers, society at large can help contain suicides in a big way.
"According to the National Crime Records Bureau, in 2009 Mumbai recorded a whopping 1,900 suicides and the rest of India notched 130,000 such cases," Shetty said.
Merchant said that while official figures are alarming, the real figures could be a shocker as many instances are suppressed due to legal and social problems.
Recalling a young nurse's suicide last month in Mumbai, he said she had faced some problems at work the previous evening and was very upset.
"The next morning, she desperately went around the hostel, asking her colleagues for a blade. In the rush hour, nobody paid attention. When she did not get a blade, she hanged herself in her room. If only somebody had taken a few minutes to enquire why she needed a blade..." lamented Merchant.
Allauddin Shaikh, the personal secretary to social activist Anna Hazare, said that in his college days, a youth once blurted out his suicidal intentions as he felt lonely and unwanted.
"I simply started dropping him a postcard daily - with some good message, some light anecdotes, etc, for nearly a year till he controlled his suicidal urges. He later admitted that my simple postcards helped him as he felt 'wanted and liked'," Shaikh told the gathering.
Terming stress as one of the biggest causes of suicide, especially in Mumbai, Merchant and Shetty emphasised the need to look out for small 'red flags' which hint at suicidal tendencies and attempt to curb them.
"Youngsters keep falling in and out of love often, leaving scars at each break-up. Parents, friends and peers must support them or it can lead to disastrous results," cautioned Kandivli physician Himanshu Modi.
Family doctors are usually the first contact with all such cases before they are referred to specialists.
Khalsa College Principal Ajit Singh, who was present at the workshop, announced that the programme was "an eye-opener and a need of the hour" and promised to organise awareness camps for students in all educational institutions run by them.
Hazare has suggested that the movement should be spread all over Maharashtra and reach out to the poorest in the remotest corners of the state to prevent suicides.
Social activist Bhavesh Patel expressed the need to "make this movement a national movement by taking it out to the people" and called for more programmes to save the future of the country's youth.
Merchant said that besides looking out for the tell-tale signs and sudden 'winding up' taken up by the intending victims, small things like just speaking, hugging, giving company or remaining beside a person feeling very low and dejected can help.
The gathering urged the media to refrain from reporting or telecasting gory details of deaths, murders or suicides as they tend to get 'copied' by people as the permanent solution to a temporary problem.
Merchant said that with the success of the workshop, a mega-workshop would be held in February for sub-leaders and the critical grassroots activists who would directly interact with the people to create awareness and help prevent suicides.
The experts suggested use of professional guidance through a free national and city helpline set up by Mumbai's Vandrewala Foundation: 1860-266-2345/022-25706000.
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