For Elina*, last winter was one of the lowest points of her life. She had a rocky break-up with her long-time boyfriend, missed a promotion in the office and had clinical depression. She felt alone.
“I have to admit that I was pretty lost,” she said. “I honestly didn’t have a shoulder to cry on. Yes, I did have my parents but trust me life for a 30-year-old unmarried girl in Dhaka is sort of a burden on her parents. It doesn’t matter whether I have a Masters’ degree or a decent job. There is always this pressure of getting married from their side.”
Her life became a blurred series of office shifts and lonely weekends roaming around the shopping malls. At one point during that time, Elina thought of committing suicide.
“But before ending it, I felt like talking with someone,” she said. “I had to call someone. It was no longer possible to find a way out without telling someone I was lost. From Facebook, I found the number of Kaan Pete Roi. I just dialed one of their numbers. Someone picked up and I started talking…”
This correspondent talked to Elina few days ago and she said she felt she was in control of her life again. “I would never forget the emotional support I received from some unknown person of Kaan Pete Roi,” she said. “That helpline aided me to look at things from a different perspective, supported me in my toughest time. I had that strange comfort of letting my emotions out to a stranger. It was so helpful.”
For many people like Elina, a stranger’s disembodied voice cut through in a way that the voices of their most beloved friends and family could not. Banking on that, Kaan Pete Roi is providing a valuable service in a country in where the issue of mental health hasn’t raised much concern yet, even as statistics show that increasing numbers of suicides being reported in Bangladesh.
The Bangladesh Police are the only authorities to keep track of suicides in the country and according to their data, 11,095 people committed suicide in Bangladesh in 2017. This means, on an average that 30 people kill themselves in the country every day. In 2016, the total number of suicide was 10,600 and in 2015, the number was 10,500, said the police data.
Non-profit organization Kaan Pete Roi emerged in 2013 as an emotional support and suicide prevention helpline. It was the brainchild of Yeshim Iqbal, a Bangladeshi-American who majored in psychology from Cornell University in the US.
In a mail sent to this correspondent, she wrote: “I studied psychology at Cornell University, graduating in 2009. After that, from 2009-2012, I worked as a Research Coordinator at the Harvard Lab for Developmental Studies, during which time I also volunteered at the Boston Samaritans, a part of the Befrienders Worldwide Network. Basically, helplines where anyone who needs immediate emotional support can call in.”
She added: “This sort of helpline exists in 40 countries already, and is established as a model for suicide prevention. After having worked there, I realised that such a service would be of great use in Bangladesh, where suicide is a problem and there are no easily accessible mental health services available.”
Later Iqbal, who is the daughter of renowned Bangladeshi science fiction writer and academic Muhammad Zafar Iqbal, came back to Bangladesh for a brief period and helped establishing Kaan Pete Roi with the help of the some local fundraising.
“This is basically an emotional support helpline, staffed by trained volunteers, which people can call to receive immediate support,” she said. “The mission of the helpline is to alleviate feelings of despair, isolation, distress, and suicidal feelings among members of our community. Kaan Pete Roi accomplishes this through confidential, compassionate, and open-minded listening.”
Iqbal is now pursuing a doctorate at New York University.
The organisation has been running for the last six years with funding mainly received from few local donors. It has received more than 18,000 calls in those six years.
“Everyone who answers a phone is trained in confidential and compassionate listening, as well as in suicide prevention and crisis management,” Iqbal wrote. “This training follows the protocol of the Befrienders Worldwide Network. It is important to note that Kaan Pete Roi is a volunteer-based organisation – those that answer the phones are not paid for their time.”
The volunteers answer the Kaan Pete Roi lines seven days a week, ready to lend their ears to woes in anyone’s life. The identity of the volunteers is strictly confidential.
The organisation has only three paid employees and one of them is Ashik Abdullah, the outreach executive – the person designate to talk with the media. At any time, between 40 and 50 volunteers work with the organisation in two shifts: 3 pm to 9 pm every day and 3 pm to 3 am on Thursdays.
Even the office location of the organisation is confidential. “Our volunteers make a one-year commitment with us, after that if they want, and if we are happy with the performance of the volunteer, we retain him/her for another year,” said Abdullah. “As of now more than 300 volunteers have worked with us in the last six years.”
He said that all the volunteers get trained with befriending process. Abdullah said befriending is different from mentoring or counseling and is more focused upon a long-term relationship. “Befriending has softer boundaries and often clients can develop meaningful friendships with our volunteers over time,” he said adding that befriending is less formal and boundaries are agreed between the client and volunteer.
Abdullah said all individuals and situations are different, so no call will sound the same. A person can share as much as s/he is comfortable with sharing, and talk about anything. People may call to discuss mental or physical illness, relationship problems, physical or sexual abuse, substance abuse, financial problems, sexual identity or anxiety.
“Our volunteers do not follow a script, so the conversation will be open,” he said. “But they might ask you some questions to better understand your problems so they can share the most effective resources to help.”
“There is no time limit, but volunteers will always try to make sure they use time wisely so they can talk to as many people in need as possible,” said Abdullah. “Finding a connection with someone with thoughts of suicide is the first step in helping them to feel better – we’re going to do everything we can to help a person feel safe.”
*Name changed to protect identity
Faisal Mahmud is a Dhaka-based journalist