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Matters of the Mind: Replicating efforts of polio eradication campaign for suicide prevention

The best way to prevent suicide is by talking about it. We need to get over our fear of the S-word. The maximum number of suicides are between the ages of 15-29, and most parents are scared to talk about this

Written by Dr Shwetambara Sabharwal | Mumbai | October 23, 2020 10:50:36 am
mental health, suicide prevention, parents educating child, matters of the mind, dr shwetambara sabharwalContrary to popular beliefs, talking about suicide does not encourage it, so long as there are guidelines for parents, teachers, the medical fraternity and mental health practitioners to talk about the prevention. (Photo: Getty Images/Thinkstock; design: Gargi Singh)

India’s commendable success in eradication of Poliomyelitis is a worthy example of its commitment and achievement once we set our minds to it.

Setting our minds to it, is the biggest hurdle.

The World Health Assembly passed a bill for global polio eradication in 1988 and India committed to the resolution. National Immunization Day (NID), commonly known as Pulse Polio Immunization programme, was launched in India in 1995, and the last case on Indian soil was reported on January 13, 2011. India has been free of polio transmission since.

India was hyperendemic for polio until the 1990s, with an average of 500 to 1,000 children getting paralysed daily.

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Government initiatives, aggressive counselling, funding, campaigning, thousands of volunteers, hundreds of NGOs, researchers, doctors, nurses, media and citizens came together to build a better future for our children.

Can this not be achieved for mental health awareness, stigma removal and suicide prevention?

India sits at the number one position of countries with the highest rate of suicides.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data on ‘Suicides in India’ for the year 2019, at least 1,39,133 people died by suicide last year across the country.

Can we then not replicate the success we achieved with polio eradication to another equally debilitating disease or occurrence?

I am not comparing suicidal ideation or acting upon it to a viral disease. I am comparing the impact of intent, effort and energy that a country like ours can generate if we choose to. I am comparing the virus-induced, lifelong paralysis to that of emotional paralysis leading to someone ending their own life, further leaving loved ones incapacitated and impacted for life.

India’s rank in the Human Development Index Report 2018 (130th out of 189 countries)  issued by the UNDP depicts the level of ignorance of the health sector in a country like ours.

Sceptics had declared that with India’s low standards of sanitation and hygiene, unaffordable cost of eradication, a large number of the uneducated and rural population and other technical, socio-political reasons, polio in India was non-eradicable. While there were delays and frustrations, this did not stop us.

mental health, suicide prevention, parents educating child, matters of the mind, dr shwetambara sabharwal We have to prepare children about mental health just the way we need to teach them about sex, drugs and crime to equip them with better coping mechanisms. (Photo: Getty Images/Thinkstock)

On February 25, 2012, the World Health Organization (WHO) removed India from the list of ‘polio-endemic’ countries.

Collating and sustaining all-round, extra-ordinary efforts including active campaigning, volunteering at booths, an extensive search for WPVs among children with any disease even remotely resembling poliomyelitis, donating for research, administration of vaccines, actually bringing out families with children below 5 years from villages to booths and diligently searching sewage waters in Mumbai, Delhi, Patna and Kolkata consistently deserve not just appreciation but also inspiration.

Prevention of suicide is an uphill struggle and that is why I listed out the various struggles and hurdles that India beat for the polio campaign. The list is not exhaustive but comparable. I recognise that there are urgent health issues like malnutrition, infant mortality, AIDS, TB, cancer and heart diseases, and these need attention. These are understood and recognised as diseases and thus warrant care, empathy and support. Suicide despite being a leading cause of death worldwide remains the least understood, stigmatised and most puzzling acts.

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What we need is attention on this from the government, a committee to structure a rigorous campaigning, funding, a centralised body to mandate mental health practice, use of therapy, workshops, media and educational institutions, awareness on risk factors, treatments, follow up surveys and support, to initiate the monumental ambition. The key, of course, will be a commitment on our part as citizens.

The best way to prevent suicide is by talking about it. We need to get over our fear of the S-word. The maximum number of suicides are between the ages of 15-29, and most parents are scared to talk about this. We have to prepare children about mental health just the way we need to teach them about sex, drugs and crime to equip them with better coping mechanisms. We need to communicate the confidence, that things can be corrected, that by having a growth mindset we can learn, grow and heal together and that hope must never be lost. If we were to put our minds, actions and funds to it, I am certain that efforts can prevent people from ending their lives, and families from experiencing the devastating emotional tenderness and vulnerability that follows in the aftermath of a suicide.

Contrary to popular beliefs, talking about suicide does not encourage it, so long as there are guidelines for parents, teachers, the medical fraternity and mental health practitioners to talk about the prevention. With a campaign that replicates the polio prevention and pulse polio in size, dynamism and rigour, with training for early recognition of indications and timely interventions, open educative conversations, therapy options, the curriculum in schools and colleges that include building muscle for distress tolerance, repeating, loud and clear, gently-yet-assertively that disappointment and challenges are universal, that they are even necessary, that they can be pivoted to advantages, that each life matters and that every life adds value, a reduction in suicide rates is not impossible.

(The author is a Mumbai-based psychologist and psychotherapist)

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