The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Dial ‘D’ in distress

Naseeruddin Shah is a familiar face for most Metro commuters. His unmistakable drawl reaches out to people living on the edge, exhorting them to seek help and guidance. The veteran actor endorses Lifeline Foundation, where people find acceptance irrespective of their religion, caste, creed or social status. Apart from Lifeline, there are two other centres in south Calcutta offering succour to cope with the stress of modern day living. While Lifeline helps out those mentally distressed, Society for Nature, Education and Health (SNEH) reaches out to students and Alcoholics Anonymous to those with a drinking problem.

Lifeline Foundation began 12 years back as a Calcutta centre for Befrienders Worldwide in England. It is one among the 14 centres that operated from various cities in India. Befrienders Worldwide has been helping those who are distressed and need someone to talk to and Lifeline Foundation is its Indian counterpart. Members of the foundation lend a sympathetic ear to those who call. They do not offer advice or take any decision on behalf of the callers. “All we try to do is to talk to them and let them unburden their problems. That helps clear their minds and think better,” said Jayshree Shome, a senior member of Lifeline Foundation. Beside, the members maintain strict confidentiality of all callers. “We do not ask for telephone numbers or addresses,” said Shome.

The callers come from all walks of life. They are homemakers, working women and men and even criminals who confess to ease their conscience. But it is sometimes difficult to find volunteers for the centre. Those who work here need not always put in the entire day. “We have people who come in the afternoon and put in some hours to take calls,” said Shome. Though the main centre is at Mudiali, there are other counters of Lifeline Foundation at Lalbazar and Alipore Bodyguard Lines. “We want to make this a 24x7 helpline. However, we need more volunteers for that,” said Suksham Singh, the director of Lifeline Foundation.

In 1996, SNEH started after the previous year saw the highest number of student suicides in the city. SNEH started counselling students in schools. “At the time, there were no counselling centres in Calcutta,” said Suvarna Ghosh, a senior member of SNEH. “We first approached schools and were turned away. However, we kept working at it and also got a license from the education department of the central government,” she added. They started with group counselling programmes at schools. “Children were too shy to talk at first. We needed to interact with them to understand their problems and that is where group counselling helped,” she said. They are presently working in about 24 schools in Calcutta and 12 schools in Barasat and Madhyamgram.

The students’ problems are mostly rooted at home. Quarrelling parents, performance pressure, broken homes often drive them to depression. “Parents are often found quarrelling with each other even on their way to their children’s counselling centre,” said Ghosh. Fear of exams is also a common phobia. “We find most children are nervous before exams. We try to help by making a study plan and asking them to follow that,” said Ghosh.

Alcoholics Anonymous is the oldest of the three, operating since 1983 in the city. It is a society for alcoholics who want to get rid of their addiction. Most of them have disturbed lives, broken homes, are unemployed and sick in the mind and body. A doctor and a sharebroker joined hands to start Alcoholics Anonymous in the US way back in 1935. Both were alcoholics who wanted to get rid of their addiction. They talked to each other and found that they could slowly let go. Now their effort has found place all over the world. The members here are not trained counsellors but people who share their experiences with those looking for help. “We have 12 steps and 12 traditions that we share with them,” said Debashish of Alcoholics Anonymous. Open meetings are held at different parts of the city where people with the same problem gather to talk. “We also meet members of the family so they understand how to handle these people at home,” said Debashish.

Dalia Mukherjee

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