Disturbing web series gets survivors of suicide and mental illness to tell their stories

Updated: Jan 28, 2018, 12:12 IST | Aastha Atray Banan

A disturbingly honest web series is getting survivors of suicide and mental illness to tell their story, making unintentional healers of them

Aakwash Pawar, 26 Home chef, Powai Survived bipolar disorder, suicide attempt by jumping off a train
Aakwash Pawar, 26 Home chef, Powai Survived bipolar disorder, suicide attempt by jumping off a train 

A Day before the first episode of SOS: Survivors Of Suicide released last October, its protagonist, Sheetal Bhan Kher, got cold feet. She didn't speak about it, or share it. It was a day later that a friend who had seen it, called her. "She told me, 'The 12 minutes you spent sharing your experience, they could save a life'. I realised she was right."

Kher, 33, was blunt to the point of being disturbing. The writer, and mother to an eight-year-old, revealed that she had been molested as a little girl by her uncle, met the same fate at school, and grew into an adult with body image issues.

Sheetal Bhan Kher, 33 Writer, Juhu Survived child abuse, suicide attempt by overdosing on sleeping pills
Sheetal Bhan Kher, 33 Writer, Juhu Survived child abuse, suicide attempt by overdosing on sleeping pills 

But, the film is not all grey. It speaks of how Sheetal turned things around, little by little, until positivity "became an attitude". "You have to dig a well every day and drink from it. It's about learning how to forgive yourself for not getting out of bed, not going to work, not taking that important call. What parent teaches their child techniques to be happy, or lift themselves when low? We need to learn that, and the first step towards it is to forgive," she says.

Richa Bajaj, writer-director of the show
Richa Bajaj, writer-director of the show

Kher is among a series of suicide survivors, whom the makers, One Digital Entertainment, have tracked. The third episode released last month, and the show itself has gathered over two million views across platforms. Richa Bajaj, its director-writer, says the idea of the series came to her as a teenager, when she stumbled on an audio cassette. It carried a recording of the experiences of a family member who was facing problems. "I was embarrassed to hear it," she recalls. "The stigma attached to not being able to handle your own life is immense. It stayed with me, as I hoped to make a show that would normalise mental illness and suicide."

Soon, Bajaj realised that her biggest challenge would be to get the survivors to talk. More men than women refused. "It's possible that men face a double challenge, because they are expected to behave like men," she says. The latest episode surrounds Kavita Sharma and her struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The next, which she is in the midst of shooting, will tell the story of a suicidal model who insists she won't take help. "She has tried to end her life three times, but she is reluctant to reach out. She takes her mental health lightly. After that, I will follow a man with hypochondria. He has failed at relationships because he is petrified that he will contract a disease from his lovers. He gets a blood test done every other day just to make sure," Bajaj shares.

The one man who gathered the courage to come out is 26-year-old Aakash Pawar, who tried jumping off a train. The Mumbai resident, who takes centrestage in the second episode, is a home-chef from Powai. Pawar says he knew he had a problem since he was a teenager, but was diagnosed with bipolar disorder recently, when he visited a psychoanalyst. "I agreed to do the show because I needed to create awareness. This [bipolar] condition is misunderstood, including by those who suffer from it," he tells mid-day.

He addressed his core problem, escapism. Embracing Buddhist beliefs, helped, he says. "We have a choice," Pawar says, "Either we use our challenges to build something positive or we turn it into the negative. I work every day on myself and my career, and make time for yoga. When I reap the benefits, it encourages me." The series, having garnered sufficient traction on social media, has managed to touch a chord. A comment following the release of Kher's episode speaks of man wanting to commit suicide; he thought nobody would notice if he disappeared from the world. "At the start, we didn't quite know how to deal with these posts, but our discussion with a group of mental health experts led to them volunteering to talk to those who hid behind comments. Sometimes, all someone wants is to be heard. I have personally called some of them and heard their story. Just listened to them for hours," says Bajaj.

There's catharsis for the survivors too. A school bully called Pawar 10 years after they had last met, and apologised for his behaviour. Kher says a young lady called her from Kolkata to speak of a failed marriage, and possible symptoms of depression. "Then, some time later, she sent me a picture of her in a T-shirt that said 'happily single'. She asked me, 'didi, yeh Tinder kaise use kartein hai?' A 54-year-old from Chandigarh told me she had been molested in childhood, and when she heard my story, she felt a weight lift off her chest," she says, adding, "When you speak up, you stand in solidarity with those who can't. And that's wonderful."

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