Over a fortnight in May, five persons committed suicide within the vicinity of the Valiyathura police station. Adding to the sorrow in the coastal area, where fishing is a major occupation, another six persons attempted to kill themselves, Tony Oliver, ward councillor, says.

Alarming as the deaths are, the authorities plan door-to-door counselling for the youth on a suggestion by the District Mental Health Programme, which has received a positive response from Health Minister V.S. Sivakumar.

As the first step to prevent such tragedies, an awareness camp and counselling session was held under the mental health programme at St. Antony’s Church on Sunday morning. K.S. Kiran, nodal officer and psychiatrist, however, acknowledged that one such session would hardly suffice as people took time even to accustom themselves to counselling.

“There is still a stigma attached to mental health therapy, and based on how well Sunday’s programme went, we can expect to see a greater participation during the next camp,” he said.

A follow-up session will be held in June focussing on the youth. In addition, another counselling session will be held for family members between the ages of 35 and 55.

“Strained relations at home have been one of the reasons that came through, and that is why we need to meet the parents and guardians separately,” Mr. Oliver said.

In the dark

Officials from the mental health programme cannot yet explain why the suicides took place, and to get the larger picture, they feel the Comprehensive Mental Health Scheme will help. They had a model to emulate in the visits of medical officers and accredited social health activists to homes in the Kallikadu panchayat area during April and May.

“People are naturally more reserved at a mass camp, and so it was effective when we visited each home to reduce the stigma, spoke about symptoms and how mental health should not be dismissed as a non-issue. In the camps held later, people were more forthcoming,” Dr. Kiran said adding that 322 cases of mental disorders, ranging from mild depression to schizophrenia, were diagnosed with this approach from the panchayat. The problem in carrying out an exercise of this magnitude in Valiyathura is that most health workers are now preoccupied with mosquito eradication programmes.

High school and college students and fresh graduates were among the 70-odd participants at Valiyathura. Six cases were referred to the mental health programme clinic at Vizhinjam, out of which two were close to the victims who died recently.

Three of the five suicide cases are being investigated together as they took place one after another. The police are yet to ascertain any connection among the victims, all of whom hanged themselves to death in their homes.