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Sumithrayo: “We don’t give advice, we offer to listen.”

Sri Lanka has struggled with high nationwide suicide rates for years. At Sumithrayo, the staff have a simple approach for people at risk: listening.

14.08.2018  |  

She was a young girl carrying her baby in her arms. Her eyes and face were lifeless. She said would kill her child. An older woman, who could have been the girl’s mother, took the baby, placed it in her lap and listened to the girl’s story.

The older woman, like other staff members at Sumithrayo (which means “friends”) in Colombo does not see herself as a counselor or a therapist but rather as a listener for people at risk of committing suicide. For the past four decades, other listeners at Sumithrayo, a suicide prevention center, hear the stories of desperate people, before it is too late.

According to the World Health Organisation, Sri Lanka was the number one country for suicides in 2017, which had increased since the previous year, although these statistics have been disputed. Sri Lankan police statistics show that 80% of those who resort to suicide are men.

The Catamaran spoke to staff at Sumithrayo (who wished to remain anonymous) about how they are dealing with the nationwide problem of suicide.

How do you work at Sumathrayo?

We help people find confidence in themselves by allowing them to tell their stories. These are people who feel that they have reached the brink of misery, suffering, and stress.

The important thing we do here is help people redeem their lives through  psychotherapy.  We maintain the relationship with identified people through conversation and bringing about social change. We work a lot through telephone communications.

Sumathrayo has become a big family. Those who come here and talk to us become friends, brothers and sisters. They become confident about living again. They spread our culture of listening and conversing. Our tradition of a family-like approach makes those who are constantly in despair to seek Sumithrayo.

What are the signs of a suicidal person? How can they be identified?

Feelings of dejection, no hope for the future, and a conflicted mind. The person will be disinterested in education, business or love affairs. They will prefer loneliness or stay isolated from others and have a moody mindset.

Those who say life it is not worth living and also say they want to kill others will try to commit suicide. There are enough of ways to learn how to do it from internet, cinema etc. A person who tries to commit suicide may or may not reveal the intention. Such a person might use alcohol and drugs. He will talk nonsense or not talk at all. He might be vengeful or calm. He will be uninterested in everything and appear frustrated.

Suicide within the family might also induce one to commit suicide. Some may choose suicide as a permanent release from physical pain. The loss of a loved one such as a girlfriend or a boyfriend can affect the mind and could lead to suicide.

Sexual violence, rape, child abuse, painful memories, and ostracism are also matters that may tend one to commit suicide. This is common in men and women.  

How do people contact Sumithrayo?

We conduct awareness programmes in schools and villages in order to prevent a suicide mentality. Many people come in search of us. Sometimes their family members or friends bring them to us. When symptoms are identified, we continue to keep track of them. We stay in touch with them constantly by phone. We converse with them about their history, background, and their life, good and bad. Gradually we bring changes in them, leading to a normal situation. We have trained personnel to handle such people.

What kind of assistance do you provide through this institution to prevent suicides?

Our aim is to reduce the number of suicides by creating a community that will respect the feelings of people to express themselves openly and freely, without reservations; and a community which does not discriminate.

When a patient comes to us, we offer to listen, we don’t give them advice. We try to understand their situation without being judgmental. We accept what they say and try to help them progress forward.

Those who try to commit suicide will have strong reasons of their own. It will be a big deal for them. They will not easily come out with those reasons. They will go around and around. But it is our duty to find the reasons.

They may have the mentality that the life they live is meaningless. We have to find the reason why and only then we can move forward.

Some stories can prevent this. Reasons can be elicited through stories. It may be a big thing for them but not so with us. But we should think from their side. This is what we do when they are brought to us.

How quickly do people approach suicide?

Those who commit suicide suddenly make up just one percent. Others are provoked to commit suicide because of long-term stress. Sri Lanka is still high on the suicide list. However, the number of suicides, compared to the last five years, has been significantly reduced but the percentage of suicide attempts is increasing.

Contributing reporting from Pratheep Gunaratnam and Dharmini Pathmanathan