You Can Be the Light

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“The most important thing in communications is to hear what isn’t being said.”

– Peter Drucker

Suicide is something that almost everyone thinks about at some point in their lives but only a few of us feel comfortable talking about it. Yet talking about suicide – its causes, prevalence, and risk factors as well as what people in crisis are experiencing – provides us with the best opportunity to prevent it along with many of the other problems that are associated with suicidal behaviour. People experience suicidal feelings for countless reasons, some of them understandable, others very difficult to comprehend, but for the person in crisis, the thoughts and feelings they are experiencing tied to their depression are very real and can seem perfectly logical.

Sumithrayo is an organsiation that has, over the past four decades, played a vital role in befriending several thousands of Sri Lankans experiencing difficulties in their lives. We have, thus far, been a source of relief to those in distress or despair due to issues, such as marital disharmony, unmanageable debt, problems at the workplace or school, peer pressure, and other issues that compromise their emotional well-being. The number of people who say that they have been pulled back from the brink of suicide by speaking with Sumithrayo is a stark revelation of the extent of emotional distress in our society.  

While Sumithrayo has been an organisation that has befriended people in distress or despair in the past, it is becoming increasingly relevant in modern society, as indicated by the large numbers reaching out for support. The hectic pace of life in contemporary Sri Lanka, experienced particularly by youth and young adults, is leading to increasing numbers of deaths. In young families where both parents must work to make ends meet, a whole catalogue of social issues is emerging; lack of time for each other, inability to cope with household matters after long hours of employment, lifestyle demand influenced by cable TV and western societies, easy access to the internet and social media platforms putting tremendous pressure on relationships or when one parent has taken employment abroad, the challenges faced by the parent remaining at home are many and complex. These are some of the concerns that people who seek support from Sumithrayo describe.

Often, these stressors have gone unaddressed for months or years and have grown to proportions that cause grave psychological distress, and perhaps even contemplate suicide.  Often people who seek support from Sumithrayo are ‘at the end of their tether’, and who, in their search for relief have somehow heard of us and turned to Sumithrayo as a last resort. Approximately 150 distressed persons contact the Centre each week. They either visit, write, telephone or e-mail, and find comfort in talking about their worries, fears, and anxieties with a caring, nonjudgmental and understanding trained befriender.

People faced with an emotional crisis mostly require informal and confidential emotional support. Sumithrayo Volunteers take every person in crisis seriously. Devoted to responding to people in crisis, focusing on empathetic active listening and non-judgmental responses, the goal of their befriending is to empower those who contact us to make life-enhancing choices. Barriers such as class, race, religion, and political or sexual leanings are non-existent.  They are provided with emotional support in an atmosphere of total confidentiality. The aim of befriending is to also help the person to find their own solutions or answers, where solutions or answers exist, not to offer external direction or advice. Active listening plays an integral part in the process of befriending. Active listening tells the person in crisis that what he/she is feeling is important and, by association, that he/she is deserving of our time and attention. For the person in crisis, being in communication with someone who is actively listening can be a calming and steadying influence, and often a life-saving experience.

Taking a minute can change a life. People who have lived through a suicide attempt have much to teach us about how the words and actions of others are important. They often talk movingly about reaching the point where they could see no alternative but to take their own life, and about the days, hours, and minutes leading up to this. They often describe realising that they did not want to die, but instead, wanted someone to intervene and stop them. Many say that they actively sought someone who would sense their despair and ask them whether they were okay.

The media also needs to reduce or ‘eliminate altogether’, the sensationalism associated with suicide reporting. They must avoid giving graphic details of the method used and avoid using words like ‘commit’ (which makes it sound like a crime).  Providing details of the mechanism and procedure used to carry out a suicide, may lead to the risk of imitation of suicidal behaviour by other people. Avoid simplistic explanations for suicide. Encourage a public understanding of the complexity of suicide. Avoid labelling places as suicide ‘hotspots’. Above all, publishing suicide helplines at the end of the report will help other vulnerable people with suicidal thoughts to make contact and prevent an impending suicide.

Founded in 1974 by the late Joan de Mel, widow of the late Bishop Lakdasa de Mel, Sumithrayo was modelled on the Samaritans, the telephone hotline open for suicidal people in the UK. Sumithrayo provides the service at the premises at Horton Place, gifted for this purpose by the de Mel family.

Joan de Mel’s mission to provide confidential emotional support with empathetic listening, free of charge for people who are experiencing feelings of distress and despair including all those that may lead to suicide, is as relevant today as it was in 1974.  According to WHO Suicide occurs throughout the lifespan and was the fourth leading cause of death among 15–29 years old globally in 2019. Furthermore, the Covid-19 pandemic and other prevailing issues pose new challenges and stresses on mental well-being.

Suicide is a complex problem for which there is no single cause or reason. It results from a complex interaction of biological, psychological, social, cultural and environmental factors. Suicide has no racial or class distinctions. However, suicides can be prevented, and suicide prevention is everyone’s responsibility.

Often, a person who is suicidal feels isolated and alone with his or her problem, which seems beyond their capacity to cope.

People contemplate suicide when their pain exceeds their resources for coping with it. At times like these, talking about their stressful situation with a non-judgmental, accepting, understanding and caring person can throw a different light on the situation and help diffuse the suicidal impulse.             

In addition to Befriending Services, Sumithrayo also conducts Awareness Programmes for those in need of Suicide Awareness and Prevention, including programmes on developing skills to deal with the everyday stresses of life.  Sumithrayo also has a specialised unit named ‘Mel Medura’ – Sumithrayo Drug Demand Reduction Programme, which assists persons with substance dependencies (alcohol, drugs, tobacco, etc.) and behavioural dependencies (gaming, sex, smart phones etc.).

The vision of Sumithrayo is to strive for a society in which:

• Fewer people die by suicide

• People are able to explore their feelings without fear or prejudice

• People are able to acknowledge and respect the feelings of others.

Often, indicators of impending suicide go undetected or are not addressed as they should be. If you or one of your friends, acquaintances, or family members exhibit the following risks and warning signs, it is crucial that they be helped.

Risk of suicide is greater when;

• There is a recent loss or breakup of a close relationship.

• Unhappy changes in health occur or are anticipated (for example, a painful, disabling, or fatal illness).

• Alcohol or drug abuse takes place.

• Mental illness occurs.

• There is a history of suicide in the family.

• There have been previous attempts made to end one’s life.

People often communicate suicidal feelings by;

• Being withdrawn and unable to relate to others.

• Having and/or expressing definite ideas on how to die by suicide.

• Talking about feeling isolated and lonely.  

• Expressing feelings of failure, uselessness, lack of hope, or lack of self-esteem.

• Constantly dwelling on problems for which there seem to be no solutions.

You can be the light to save a life by disseminating information about our services.

Sumithrayo is open and is available to provide emotional support on all 365 days of the year, between 9 a.m. and 8 p.m., face-to-face, on the telephone, and by email. Help is available in Sinhala, Tamil, and English. Our Services are strictly confidential and free of charge.

Sumithrayo can be contacted on:

Telephone: 011-2692909 / 011-2683555 / 011-2696666

E-mail: [email protected]

Website: www.sumithrayo.org

Address: No. 60/B, Horton Place, Colombo 7.

Mel Medura

Telephone: 011-2693460 / 011-2694665

E-mail: [email protected] 

Website: www.melmedura.org

Address: No. 60, Horton Place, Colombo 7.