Suicide prevention is the objective of Sneha, which will soon be working 24 hours, year-round

Chennai is in the front, in an area where it is great to be among the last. The 2003 report by the National Crime Records Bureau places the city in the second position, where suicide rates among major metros are concerned. At 19.3 per lakh population, Chennai is second only to Bangalore (25.9). These cities are followed by Hyderabad (11.8), Delhi (7.8), Mumbai (5.9) and Kolkata (1.6). In 2005, Chennai reported 2,275 suicides. This figure, notwithstanding the fact that it accounted for Greater Chennai as well, is alarming compared to the 2004 calculation - 1,196 suicides. Although there are places that are faced with a grimmer situation (Jabalpur recorded a 40 per lakh population and the Union Territory of Puducherry, 57.9), Chennai needs attention.


In this context, suicide prevention organisation Sneha's announcement that it will be working 24 hours, all through the year, comes as a big reassurance. The voluntary unit could scale up its service, because it has realised a long-cherished dream. Ever since Sneha was established at a rented space on Lloyds Road, founder Dr. Lakshmi Vijayakumar has been hoping to run the organisation from its own territory. Yet, she had to wait for 20 years. Following its 20th anniversary function (at Narada Gana Sabha on October 13), where the round-the-clock service will be launched (by Dr. B. Saraceno, director, Mental Health Division, WHO) and the new premises declared open (by Dr. Anbumani Ramadoss, Union Minister of Health and Family Welfare), Sneha will be operating from No. 11, Park View Road, Raja Annamalaipuram, ph: 24640050. Lakshmi is convinced that the facility could not have come at a more appropriate time. The challenges of modern life subject people to increasing stress. "Every organism needs change for growth. But the rapidity of change we are witnessing is anything but desirable." Support systems have begun to crumble. "Look at the family structure - it has changed. Earlier, there was always a cousin or uncle one could confide in." Such relatives offered a shoulder to cry on, ensuring depression did not lead to something worse. With a career-oriented lifestyle and a plenty of opportunities up for grabs in other parts of the world, today's youngsters don't stay long enough in one place to forge close relationships that could prove an asset in the long run. "We are getting a lot of calls from people in the software industry."

Proactive approach needed

Sneha's two-year-old 'Email Befriending' programme, which encourages anyone who is depressed or feels suicidal to establish an email relationship with a volunteer, is aimed at these tech-savvy professionals. Sneha now sees the need for a more proactive approach whereby young minds are provided with the defences required to fight the stresses that they might have to face in the future. Lakshmi encountered a touching case, where a school girl decided suicide was the only way to cope with failure to meet her own standards. Due to illness at the time of her exams, she did not perform as well as she could have. She is one of those girls for whom even 95 per cent is not adequate. Sneha's timely intervention saved the girl's life. "This girl said, 'My mother taught me to be a good dancer. My father taught me to be a good tennis player. My teacher taught me to be a good student. But nobody taught me how to face a failure." In the last 20 years, Sneha has been saving such people from the brink of death because of a committed volunteer group. With its task getting more challenging, Sneha is always looking for more volunteers. At present, there are 50; Lakshmi sees the need for at least a 30 more. Coming from different walks of life, the volunteers represent a cross-section. It is heartening when extremely busy chartered accountants and software engineers come forward to spend four hours every week for Sneha. What motivates these people to assist this voluntary organisation? Reasons could be many (from being directly affected by someone's suicide to being impelled by humanitarian considerations), but this one is the most interesting. "Some have told us that Sneha's ad caught their fancy. It asks, 'Are you ordinary enough to be a volunteer?'" PRINCE FREDERICK