“I want to give others what I never received: a listener.” – Abhishek Kundu, Suicide Prevention Activist
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As a Suicide Prevention Activist, Abhishek Kundu has supported over 150 people in their journey toward mental health. At a very young age, Abhishek was diagnosed with a speech disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. The next few years were not kind to him either. From getting forcefully evicted from their house and moving to Kolkata to losing his mother, Abhishek’s life has not been easy. However, it only made him more determined to provide support for people living with mental health issues.
Today, Abhishek is one of India’s foremost suicide prevention activists and provides free online and offline counseling support. His candid and vulnerable conversations have inspired many people to move toward changing their lives.
MyndStories talked to Abhishek about his struggles, life, work, and suicide prevention work he has done around the world. September 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day, and WHO statistics show that an estimated 703,000 people take their life annually worldwide.
World Suicide Prevention Day was established in 2003 as a collaborative effort between WHO and the International Association for Suicide Prevention.
The theme for 2021-23 is to ‘Create Hope through Action.’
What motivated you to do the work you do today?
My own life inspired me to work for suicide prevention. I was very young when my mother suffered a brain stroke while carrying me to school. For 3 long hours, she was lying on the road, and no one came to help. By the time she was taken to the hospital, she was already in a coma. That trauma affected my vocal cords, and I was diagnosed with PTSD. After 8-9 months, my mother came out of the coma, but the right side of her body was paralyzed. I also started speaking, but I was diagnosed with a speech disorder. I couldn’t even say my name without stammering, which resulted in bullying in school.
In college, I was marked absent for half the classes because I had trouble saying my roll number and wasn’t allowed to sit for the exams. I was rejected from job interviews merely because of my speech disorder. When a company finally gave me a chance to prove myself, I got promoted within 14 months.
For me, my speech disorder was never a weakness. In fact, I called it my strength.
It was in 2010, a couple of years after I started working full-time when I lost my mother. Her condition was already deteriorating but losing her on my birthday became a breaking point for me. My mother was my best friend, and without her, I was lost.
I had no one to share that emptiness with. A psychiatrist prescribed me some anti-depressants. And all I knew was that if I took those medicines, the pain and suffering would disappear for a short time. So I started self-medicating every day. It was 7 months after my mom’s death that a realization came to me. I asked myself what I was doing and thought about how unhappy my mom would be to see me like this.
I realized I had to change. So I took a piece of paper and wrote down everything I blamed others for. And then, I tried to find the points under my control. None of them were. The only thing under my control was how I lived my life. So that’s what I did. I took control of my life. I went to another physician who helped me get off the anti-depressants. I started taking small steps toward the future I wanted.
How did you start working as a suicide prevention activist?
To be honest, it happened unexpectedly. One day, I was checking my LinkedIn account when I saw a post from someone who was really upset. By that time, I had already completed my degree in psychology. I had this gut feeling to talk to her. And so I did. I sent her a connection request and spoke to her. I shared my story with her, and she shared hers.
During our conversation, I found out that she had attempted suicide thrice in her life. Our sessions continued for 5 months. I gave her a listening space that no one had given to me. One day, she told me she was feeling better and was ready to take on the future. She was the first person who told me that I could help many people like her. That was the beginning of my work in this field. That was also the first night since 1994 that I slept peacefully. Today, I have supported 150+ people, and most of them stay in touch with me.
What are your initiatives for suicide prevention?
When I was diagnosed with PTSD, I consulted many doctors and psychiatrists. I was prescribed heavy anti-depressants. What I didn’t get was someone to talk to me and understand me. So, that’s what I do now. When I support people, I give them a safe space to talk. But the main initiative has to come from them.
My primary initiative is the free online and offline counseling sessions I offer. But I don’t plan to turn this into a job. My contact number and email ID are available easily. Anyone who contacts me for support, I give it to them. Some of the NGOs I am associated with offer online sessions around the world, and I mainly provide support in African countries like Nigeria and Ghana.
Mental health is still stigmatized in India. It was much worse decades back. What were the challenges you faced while seeking mental health help?
There were many challenges. First and foremost was the invisibility of mental illnesses. I knew even if I told people about it, they would not understand. I remember when I was handling a corporate job a few years back, I was uncomfortable sharing my mental health issues with my superiors.
I was afraid if they learned about my mental health issues, they’d fire me. But I had to tell them when I got triggered because of something and could not concentrate on my work. Next thing you know, everybody is sympathetic to me. ‘You’re not well’ or ‘your brain is not fit enough to work,’ were what they used to say to me. Some colleagues would ask me, ‘You are not mentally fit. How will you do your job?’
Eventually, I had to quit that job because that toxic environment would have deteriorated my mental health even more. So, seeking help back then was hard, but getting the right support was harder. The stigma and misconceptions surrounding mental health back then made it difficult for me to work. However, I see things changing today. We’re not there yet. Stigma is still present. But at least we’re working toward it.
Suicide rates in India are among the highest in the world. Why do you think that is? What can be done to help people who may struggle with the will to live?
There is no one reason, of course. But the situation is terrible. Today, we regularly see news of school children attempting suicide because of parental pressure to be at the top of their class. When they don’t meet these unreasonable expectations, they deem themselves worthless. I know someone who didn’t talk to their daughter for two weeks because she didn’t stand first in class.
We have created an environment where children tie their self-worth to their academic performance. And that is a major problem.
Then there’s the loss we faced during the pandemic. Whether the loss was emotional, physical, or financial, we still haven’t recovered.
I believe, as a society, one thing we can do is not judge. Don’t judge. Be a listener. If you’re a good listener, you can help them get the necessary help. Even if that’s not a possibility, you can tell them that you’re with them. Tell them they’re not alone. And that’s enough.
Is the media helpful or a hindrance to the cause of suicide prevention? Especially given that most media in India freely report the cause of death or the means.
Media is only after ratings and TRP. If a famous person dies by suicide, the media covers it for some time. People post about it on their social media handles. But after a few weeks, it’s back to the previous behavior, as if nothing happened. Our media is not doing its job in the mental health segment. Because if they want to, they can change the whole system by creating awareness. If they want to promote mental health awareness, it’d be easy to do so.
But the problem is not just with the media. It’s also with our mentality. A few years back, a movie that dealt with suicide and substance abuse came out. Back then, whenever I even mentioned the movie’s name to most people, the only thing they’d say about it was that it was very negative. They didn’t want to talk about it; they didn’t want to think about it. And that’s a problem. If you’re not even aware of the problem, then how will you help people?
Working on suicide prevention can take a toll on your emotional health. What disturbs you the most in this line of activism?
I often ask my clients, ‘you’ve been suffering for so long. Why didn’t you share your pain with someone? Why didn’t you seek help?’ They have only one reply – there are people who hear and reply, but no one wants to listen. Their answer breaks my heart, and I often recall my past because I went through the same thing, and I know how much people love to discuss but not listen. And that’s what I offer them when they come to me. I give them a person who will listen.
What would you like to say to people in a dark place?
Let’s talk. That’s the only thing I’d like to speak to them about.
You can find Abhishek here:
If you are having suicidal thoughts and need help, call the Aasra helpline number 91-9820466726. Find a more comprehensive list of state-wise helpline numbers here.