Did you know that Tamil Nadu has the third worst rate of female suicide in the world?
Shocking isn’t it?
Not for the people of this small village, where suicide was a common affair. The issue was so huge that between 1995 and 2011, the village could attribute 83 of its 92 deaths to suicides!
In Needamangalam, Tiruvarur district, suicide had taken the form of an epidemic. It was viewed as a “go-to solution” for all kinds of problems in the community—from an altercation with a neighbour to a domestic dispute.
The gravity of the issue was recognised by the teacher of a school in the village, Anand Thiyagarajan.
He noticed the perpetually low parent turnout at the Parent Teacher Meetings in the school. On inquiry, he discovered that a majority of the students had lost one or both parents to suicide.
“I had lost my own parents at an early age and could relate to the students. This motivated me to take action to change the situation. I mobilised my students, and embarked on a project to bring down the suicide rate,” he said.
His attempt to counsel community members in 2011 had received a lukewarm response. Subsequently, he made a second attempt to tackle the issue involving the school students.
Despite suicides devastating a number of families, students found a disturbing lack of awareness in the community and among themselves, because conversations around the issue had never been initiated. A fundamental change in the attitudes towards the value of life required a significant shift in mindset and posed an enormous challenge for the students as well as the teacher.
The change process was initiated with an impactful outreach effort where students put up a play at the school’s Annual Day function.
The play depicted a typical series of events from a trivial domestic altercation leading to a suicide, eventually showing how the lives of orphaned children panned out, with some having to turn to beg to make a living.
The play garnered a tremendously positive response. It drove the point home strongly, with members of the audience admitting, “Nobody was even using the word ‘suicide’.”
The play was followed by a series of awareness rallies and street plays that used relevant and contextual elements such as the depiction of Gods and the stories of courage and faith.
To reinforce the impact of the awareness efforts, Thiyagarajan decided to employ a village youth club called the Diamond Boys, that was was formed by a not-for-profit organisation, the Diamond Charitable Trust. The group provided door-to-door counselling across 380 households, and to this day, the youth club enacts the annual day play on every street, once in two months, to reinforce the message of a suicide-free community.
A multi-pronged approach was employed to reduce the incidence of suicides in the village.
At the end of 2013, the village recorded zero suicides. Not just that, the school also received tremendous media coverage as well as appreciation from national and international quarters, leading to a surge in the self-confidence of its residents.
More importantly, academic performances of students improved tremendously, owing to better familial situations.
Thiyagarajan taught the students another crucial lesson—that of compassion and empathy for those who had lost dear ones to suicide. Thus, his students were able to overcome resentment towards those who might have attempted or committed suicide.
The children also got the opportunity to travel to Ahmedabad to be felicitated by Design for Change, an organisation running a global movement to empower children with critical 21st-century skills. The opportunity for the children to travel outside of their village was a cause for the entire community to celebrate.
As the ward councillor, Sivakumar said, “When we all went to bring them back, there were crackers, it was like a festival for us. Even the houses where the children don’t go to school…everyone was very happy.”
There is no limit to the distance that a teacher’s influence can travel. The good influence of Thiyagarajan helped improve the conditions of an entire community.
Watch a short video about this:
The students submitted this project as part of the ‘I CAN Awards’ organised by Design for Change and sponsored by Parle-G.
Since 2009, the awards programme has attracted 14,000 stories of change from school children all over India who have followed the Feel-Imagine-Do-Share (FIDS) model of design-thinking to create social change in their communities.
Want your kids to drive social change? Help them join one of the largest movements in the world that’s led by children. Take up the ‘I CAN’ School Challenge in your classroom. Find out more online.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)