Highlights

  • 1.64 lakh people died by suicide in India in 2021: NCRB
  • We speak with Krishan Kalsi, the founder of Sumaitri
  • The Footnote: a series where he hear stories of quiet changemakers

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Sumaitri: one of India's first suicide prevention helplines with Krishan Kalsi | The Footnote

This World Suicide Prevention Day, we turn back the clock and speak with Krishan Kalsi, one of the co-founders of Sumaitri, a crisis intervention center for people who are depressed, distressed or suicidal. 

1,64,033.
449 every day.
18 every single hour.

That’s how many people died by suicide in 2021, as per government data. This is the highest number of suicides India has ever recorded in a year. According to reports, India has 0.75 psychiatrists per 100,000 people. There is no hiding that India has an understated and dire problem of mental illnesses. Access to mental healthcare services are still elusive for many, due to both lack of resources, as well as awareness. While there is growing conversation on the importance of mental wellbeing, the end goal is quite a distance away, especially now, as we grapple to come to terms with the fallout from the pandemic. 



This World Suicide Prevention Day, we turn back the clock and speak with Krishan Kalsi, one of the co-founders of Sumaitri, a crisis intervention center for people who are depressed, distressed or suicidal. Set up over three decades ago, this is among India’s first volunteer-based suicide prevention hotline. While the adage goes ‘time equals money’, volunteers at Sumaitri showed up for people every day without expecting a penny in return. With only the thought of helping people to motivate them, we hear the story of some of the first few people who furthered the conversation on mental health in India. 



Nishtha Shanti: Can you tell us a little bit about where the thought for Sumaitri came from and why you decided to start it?
Krishan Kalsi: Sumaitri was founded in September 1988. The reason was in those days the suicide rate was very high and unfortunately there was no place where people in crisis could go and seek help. What is crisis? Crisis is a situation where you do not know what's going to happen next. And in that suspense, you get more worried and more anxious and more tense. And that's where you tend to take a decision which may not be good for you. At the time when the person needs to speak to somebody to share his thoughts with somebody there is nobody around.

NS - What were the early days of Sumaitri like? What were some challenges you faced?
KK - I was keen to start something where nobody was paid a single penny. One volunteer was an advocate, one was a psychiatrist, one was a housewife, one was a media professional, one was a social worker, and one was working with the UN. So, all of us, we came together and we started it. Each person who was there, was a volunteer. Nothing was paid, no conveyance was paid - to the extent where you have to pay for our own tea and coffee. The biggest challenge was the first training program. We did not have any premises. So where did we go? It's amazing! At the IIC lawns we were a group of about 18 to 20 people, and there were three or four trainers also sitting there and having the training in the open. They felt for the cause, all of us. We felt for the cause and we realized that we can help.

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NS - From not having a place to conduct training session to eventually setting up the center, how did you first secure a premises for yourself?
KK - Now, I remember the first time we went to the NDMC seeking a place because felt this is the agency which can help us. And the chairperson was there, he asked me one very simple question "What is suicide? I mean if a person has to commit suicide, why should they seek help?" I said, "the thing is that if we are running the center, we are not saying that suicide will stop, or that nobody will commit suicide. But the thing is, that there are many people who are contemplating. There are many people who are on the edge at the moment and they think that their life is here or there. Now, if they are in that kind of situation and they know that there is this place, there is this number I can call up - 100% this person will make a phone call. You are sitting here with three people. I ask one simple question if, God forbid, tomorrow you have a crisis. Where would you go? Will you talk to your wife?" He said "no", your friends "no'". "Well, I'm a man. I can take care of it" I said, "Hypothetically speaking, you cannot. You realize that okay you're reaching the edge now. What would you do?"
You won't believe within 10-20 minutes; we were given a premises.

NS - For people to be able to call this number, it was important that they know about it. How did word about Sumaitri spread?
KK - Those were the days mobile phones were just beginning and were not that common. The only alternative we had was to go to the public to talk to people. So, we would visit universities, schools and conduct community outreach programmes. One good thing that happened was that a few people came forward said, we'll sponsor your ads. These used to be very tiny ads, but slowly people started to know about us. And then, of course, there was media support, and many magazines and newspaper covered us also.


NS - While conversation on mental health in India is growing, it's still not very common. What was it like to talk about suicide over three decades ago?
KK - You may not know it, but during those days, there were certain things that were happening. Family problems, dowry deaths. And trying to come to terms with reality was very tough because it was a changing society. That time it was very different and suicide was taboo subject. I remember, we had gone to a girls school and we were addressing class 11 students and the teachers were shocked when I used the word 'atmahatya' And the first reaction was, oh-oh,, no, no, no. There is no need to talk, you talk about other things also. So then we said that this is one thing we want to talk about because people are, because young girls, young boys are committing suicide. In higher secondary if you don't get 90%, you won't get admission anywhere. And after the meeting was over, two of the young girls came up to me, and talked about it. It is quite an emotional experience when you face this kind of a thing, that a young girl of 16 or 17 feeling suicidal because she may not get 90%.

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NS - The problem of people dying by suicide is becoming bigger in India every day. What do you think we can do to try to lessen this issue and help those who may need it?
KK - We know people who died. People who did not die or people who are still suffering from it, or people who are still trying to work out their lives so that they can survive is a humongous number. We see suffering all around us and we see people are leading a very lonely life. And there has to be some kind of a human contact, to say that 'Okay, I am there for you. I can share your life, your pain with you. I may not be able to do much, but the thing is, I am there on the other line.' The problem is that we evaluate ourselves before we seek help. And that is one of the reasons we don't seek help. At the moment that there is a greater need of a center like Sumaitri to be spreading all over and telling people that it's normal to feel suicidal, it's normal to feel sad, it's normal to feel that, okay, this is the end of the life. But sure enough, the help is available. It has to be made more public in the schools. I would start from the schools - if a child knows that, okay, there can be a crisis and then one can seek help also, the help would be available. Like we used to say and we still say that you might feel lonely, but you are not alone. I'm there with you on the other side of the phone.

The world as we know is made up of small quiet contributions by many. People who made history, but got left out of our history books. Hear the stories of these changemakers, straight from them — in editorji's series ‘The Footnote’

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(If you feel suicidal or know someone in distress, please reach out to them with kindness and call these numbers of local emergency services, helplines, and mental health NGOs.)

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