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19th July 1998

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Listen, listen, listen

By Mallika Wanigasundera

There is a common be lief that people who talk about killing themselves seldom do. This is a myth. In fact 70 percent of people who have killed themselves have talked about it, but no one took any notice, says Ms Lakshmi Ratnayake, President, Sri Lanka Sumithrayo.

"The world is full of people living impossible lives. But the human spirit is incredibly resilient and individuals facing extreme stress, isolation and hopelessness, seeing no reason to live can be helped, by a caring person who just listens.The stories are often irrational and confused, but just listen," says Ms. Ratnayake, who has listened patiently to the troubled, the distressed, the desperate and the suicidal for nearly 20 years.

It came as a surprise when Ms Ratnayake said, "When a desperately unhappy or suicidal person comes to us what he or she needs is not expert advice but a kind and compassionate listener, who is non-judgemental and is willing to listen to the same story, over and over again." "As the person repeats his or her story, it frees the mind from pain and desperation and the problem becomes less muddled and often there is a catharsis. The important thing is to be believed and understood however small or trivial the problem may be,' she says.

The problem is no longer as weighty and insoluble as it seemed and often Lanka Sumithrayo clients go away with a sense of relief, says Ms Ratnayake.

Ms Ratnayake should know-calm and unruffled, she reaches out to befriend the suicidal along with around 235 volunteers.

Around 10,000 persons from all walks of life consult Lanka Sumithrayo and many lives have been saved in a country which has the highest suicide rate in the world with 45 suicides per 100,000 population.

Sri Lanka Sumithrayo was founded in 1974 by Joan de Mel. It has befriending and crisis centres in Colombo, Kandy, Panadura, Kuliyapitiya, Panduwasnuwara, Mawanella, Matale and Bandarawela.

Next year, Lanka Sumithrayo completes 25 years of service. It was helped to find its bearings by Befrienders International in 1974, but now is a fully fledged befrienders organisation with 235 volunteers and crisis centres dotting the country.

Ms. Ratnayake spelt out its aims and principles which are mainly focused on emotional support for the lonely, the depressed and the despairing and those in danger of taking their lives.

No one need fear that confidence would be violated. There is absolute confidentiality. You can go to the crisis centre in 60/7, Horton Place, Colombo 7, talk to the counsellors and no names are asked. You can walk in and out quite anonymously, she said. In 1995, 8519 people committed suicide. You do not need much arithmetic to work out that 23 persons took their lives each day that year. Between 1991 and 1995, 38,517 persons committed suicide. In addition there have been numerous attempts.

Lanka Sumithrayo has found that people commit suicide for many reasons which build up pressure on the mind of people with poor coping capacity.

Forty percent of suicides are depressed; 20-25 percent are drug addicts and the rest have some emotional problem. The act itself is impulsive, but the person would have been thinking about suicide for some time.Then there are the triggers which is the final straw, says Ms. Ratnayake.

Sumithrayo works through volunteers who are counsellors whose service is free. But in the Rehabilitation Centre for drug addicts there are paid counsellors and inmates have to pay a nominal amount.

To be a counsellor you have to be a good listener. There are people, says Ms Ratnayake, who have been coming to the centre for twenty years, to tell the same story.

And we listen, and we listen, she says. Volunteers must be caring, flexible, non-judgemental and preferably without too strong a view on religion. They must have the capacity to accept people as they are, says Ms. Ratnayake.

It may surprise many people to know that the counsellor's role is not to try to put the sufferer's life right. Rather, by befriending, we have to empower the person to help himself/ herself. It has to be self-help and in the final analysis, that is the only kind of help which will be beneficial, she says and the only acceptable help to the distressed and desperate.

An outstanding example is the village of Kosgahagoda in the Polonnaruwa district. In this community of around 400 people there were at least three or four suicides each year and several attempts. Sumithrayo worked there for two years and during that time there were no suicides at all. Suicides take place in many remote villages when people feel helpless and hopeless and have no one to turn to, no-one to talk to.

One of the main causes of suicide are love affairs. Our parents and teachers tend to be authoritarian. They lack the ability to communicate positively. From childhood individuals have to be taught to cope positively with negative feelings, says Ms. Ratnayake. When a child reacts negatively, hammering him /her only enrages the child more, she says.

Students who find themselves in alien surroundings without friends, with financial difficulties and no-one to talk to commit suicide. Sumithrayo has programmes to raise awareness about suicidal behaviour and to raise the self esteem of likely suicides.

Jeane Maracek, a US psychologist has said no matter how utopian our aspirations are we cannot hope to prevent life crises- love affairs, failed exams, marital conflicts, incurable illnesses-which can trigger suicides.

But, she says, we can help people meet these experiences with some equanimity and resilience and more optimism.

This is what Lanka Sumithrayo has been doing for so many people who need that kind of help and understanding. May be if you are the right kind of person you could be a volunteer in this most valuable organisation.

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