Saturday, 9 April 2016

One in three calls to suicide helplines is about heartbreak

Actor Pratyusha Banerjee's suicide last week came as a rude jolt to the world of showbiz. Shocking allegations against her boyfriend Rahul Raj Singh piled up, underlining the lethal power of love gone wrong. In 2013, Jiah Khan's death and a farewell letter to her beau Sooraj Pancholi had created a similar storm. While these two cases made headlines, they're hardly exceptions. In fact, love accounts for one out of three calls received by some suicide helplines.

Hyderabad-based helpline, Onelife, receives 20-25 calls every day. Nearly 30% deal with love and heartbreak. Mumbai-based Aasra gets over 100 calls a day, of which around 35 are related to break-ups and gender violence. "Nearly 60% of our callers talk about relationship issues," says Akku, coordinator at Bengaluru-based Sahai, which gets an average of 800 calls a year.

So what makes love a reason to kill oneself? "People with a suicidal impulse usually have tunnel vision for their romantic partners. When a long relationship ends, they struggle to imagine their life without it," says Sujatha, coordinator, Onelife. Dr Shyam Bhat, psychiatrist and founder of, agrees. "Research shows that romantic love can become addictive and its loss causes the same changes in brain chemistry that are seen in physical trauma."

Shreya (name changed) was on the brink of attempting suicide last year when her boyfriend abandoned her over a misunderstanding. "Now I feel it was stupid. But back then, the pain was so overwhelming that I just wanted it to end," she says. "I had sleeping pills in my hand when my brother happened to call. He knew I was going through a rough time, so he reiterated my family's unconditional support for me. That call saved my life."

Often, it's about that one timely call. Mamta Vaish, a counsellor at Sanjivini Society for Mental Health, says a person in such a situation needs to vent. "Hear them out without judging them, or belittling the issue. Pain reduces when a person is understood," says Vaish. Distractions like a movie or a shopping spree may not work.

This is where professional help comes in. "I remember spending my first three sessions just crying in front of the counsellor," says Shreya. "Telling her everything made me feel light." After six sessions, Shreya had begun to plan new career goals. However, the biggest hurdles for psychologists is lack of awareness and the stigma attached to depression. "When a prominent person commits suicide, it makes people realize that depression can happen to anyone," says Akku, adding that calls to Sahai usually spike after a celebrity suicide.

Society is also to blame for the unrealistic expectations we place on love. "We worry about what people think of us," says psychologist Varkha Chulani. This eventually translates to 'you are nothing without love, and the only way to feel good about yourself is when others, especially the significant other, love you'. The same ideas are showcased on TV and in movies. "Moreover, these days, people are quick to get into relationships and declare 'love forever after' for each other on social media," says ?Dr Rajesh Goyal, consultant psychiatrist, Sir Ganga Ram Hospital. "When the reality differs from this ideal, these individuals are not able to cope with the consequences. In pre-social media times, people would take time to form relationships and tell others much later."
The highest-risk age-group is 15-35 years, says Johnson Thomas, director of Aasra. Nearly 50% of the 2,500-plus callers at Onelife have been in the 18-25 bracket. Although urban helplines record failed relationships as the top reason among callers, National Crime Record Bureau's 2014 data cites "love affairs" in only 3.2% of suicide cases. "Family problems" and "illness" top the causes for death by suicide, and are cited in 21.7% and 18% of cases respectively.

A suicide is usually followed by a police investigation into what pushed the victim over the edge. In the case of love, that may turn out to be a grey area at times. "Suicide is never a rational decision. Sadly, most people in our country believe there must be an understandable cause for a suicide," says Dr Bhat. "When you have a wound, even a gentle breeze will hurt your skin. The same is true of the mind. Any stressful event can precipitate suicide in a vulnerable person." The solution then is to offer support and get professional help for anyone who is going through significant emotional stress.

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