My Perspective on the IIT-B Suicide and Vakola Police Station Incident

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Mumbai, over the last 36 hours has witnessed two very unfortunate incidents, which happened mere kilometers apart from each other. The good thing is that both incidents have received widespread mainstream media coverage, both online and offline. But I am afraid that that is where it is going to end.

Call it a boon or a bane, but in this day and age where Twitter breaks news faster than live TV news, in a country like ours where there is no shortage of misfortune, often, important incidents like these get reduced to hashtags that are forgotten sooner than they trended.

I am rather active on Twitter, both on my personal handle, as well my employer – iCALL Psychosocial Helpline’s official handle. I try not to miss any opportunity for striking up the unpopular and uncomfortable conversation about mental health and counselling in India. Most times, unfortunately, this takes a breaking news-worthy tragedy.

You see, suicide in India is not uncommon. In fact it is so common that in the World Health Organization’s first ever publication on the global issue of suicide, India was found to have the highest rate of suicide in the world.

Much like other issues that plague our country like poverty, or Violence Against Women; the issue has become SO common that only suicides that have ‘prime-time news debate material’ written all over them get picked up by the media.

Which is what makes yesterday even more unique. There were not one, but two suicides in Mumbai, both of which were fairly unique. The incident at Vakola Police Station was a homicide + suicide, where an overworked cop snapped, and all hell broke loose, while the IIT-B suicide was a heartbreaking tale of a small-town boy who was so distressed at IIT that his suicide note mentioned that he wished he had never made it to the institute in the first place. In other words, and I am really sorry to say this, the only reason these two stories received any media coverage was because they checked all the ‘breaking news’ boxes, and fit all the media stereotypes representative of their institutions. What is more tragic is that the media sees them as discrete stories, with zero similarity between them. Most papers today have separate front page stories for both stories, done by separate reporters, whom I suspect would not even have looked at each other’s notes. Most papers have missed the strikingly obvious fact that these were both acts of desperation, where the unfortunate individuals had reached their breaking points and finally snapped. None of the stories I have seen today mention any helpline numbers for the sake of others out there who might be feeling similarly on the edge (If there are any stories, please do bring them to my notice)

As a mental health professional, I have interacted with media personnel and my friends on social media regarding both of the issues, and regarding similar issues in the past. One request I routinely make to all my friends on SM or MSM is that they can skip my name, my quote, my handle, my picture etc, but not forget to write or tweet about iCALL, its number and its working hours. Each time, I have found that the opposite happens.

Of the two issues, the IIT-B suicide hurts me more, for the simple reason that I have been actively involved with the institute for the past three years, on the very issue of mental health and suicide prevention. My team at iCALL, along with the extremely proactive Counselling Coordinator at IIT-B – Shivani Manchanda – have been conducting peer counsellor training, awareness building and mental health sensitization workshops at the institute for the past three years. We’ve gone from a time three years ago where we did everything short of literally dragging students into the classroom to attend these sessions, (even after which 20-odd people would be present in a class that could seat a 100) to a point where we’ve fallen short of fliers and handouts over the last two workshops.

But the battle is an uphill one. It would be silly to blame IIT-B for this suicide. The institute has taken the right steps towards improving its mental health resources over the last three years. They’re still far away from being a campus where mental health is not a taboo, but they do take the issue seriously. Remember that we are working towards undoing decades of stigma associated with mental health. Unlike Mood-I, and the unique IIT-B lingo, talking about mental health is not popular, and not part of the IIT culture. Much like the rest of India, suicide prevention at IIT is not just about mental health awareness, it is about bringing about a culture of help-seeking, and preventive mental health care, rather then knee-jerk damage control measures.

I don’t even know where to begin as far as work with the Police force is concerned, but they too are a population group highly in need of mental health care. Unlike IIT-B, I have no experience working on the mental health needs of police personnel themselves. My work with them has been limited to providing services to other people in need. I read about ‘psychological screening’ of Police personnel in wake of this issue. I am not sure what that entails, but I do plan to find more answers to what can be done for our police professionals

I see both suicides, as calls for help that went unanswered. Even in the Vakola Police Station case, I feel the Senior PI and the police officer who shot him were both victims.

I did tweet about both these incidents, but I decided to take down most of those tweets because this time I wanted to do more than just talk in 140 characters about mental health.

I really hope that these unfortunate deaths strike a larger conversation about mental health, that does not remain limited to the culpability of the institutions involved in them. I hope unlike other incidents, these conversations do not die down.

And lastly, I hope that anyone out there who is reading this post and is going through any kind of emotional or psychological distress, hears that there are services out there that can help them. And for those of you thought this was a good read worthy of a share, make sure you remind your friends and family members to pick up the phone and reach out to iCALL on 022-25563291 any time between 10 AM and 10 PM, Mon-Sat, or write in to icall@tiss.edu

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