Published on August 14, 2007
Like most people, Jirungkoon Nuttharungsri was always frightened when she encountered mentally ill people on the street. Unlike most people, she always wanted to help them.
"I figured these people could be treated and lead normal lives again," says the registered nurse (civil service Level 7) at Prasrimahabhodi Psychiatric Hospital in Ubon Ratchathani.
"I also wondered what it was that had unbalanced them."
Having grown up among nurse siblings, Jirungkoon decided to take the mental-care course at Sappasitprasong Nursing College. Being a medical nurse seemed "too simple" - she wanted the challenge of coping with the mentally unstable.
She joined the hospital after graduating in 1986, and soon discovered that she'd been right about the job. Her days are filled with challenges, and a level of "excitement" that could never be found beyond the perimeter fence.
The problems her patients wrestle with, Jirungkoon says, derive from stress at work, disillusion with society and their personal sexual desires.
Unfortunately, those same factors destabilise people who remain on the outside. On their shifts on the hospital's counselling hotline, Jirungkoon and other staff members have often fallen prey to perverts who call just to hear a female voice.
One of them was somehow able to get her home number and was able to continue their "conversation" after she finished work. While her husband stewed over the situation, she tried to talk the caller into a therapy session at the hospital, but he never showed up.
"They're sick and have nowhere to go, so they come to us anonymously over the phone," says Jirungkoon. Some callers are high-ranking officials drowning in mental difficulties, but they can't undergo therapy because of the risk of public exposure.
When someone in trouble reaches a dead end, there's always a sign. Jirungkoon had only been on the job a year when a patient approached her and repeatedly asked her to light his cigarette, saying it was the last he'd smoke.
She lit the cigarette, but her lack of experience meant she didn't recognise the plea for help. The patient committed suicide soon after.
Instead of taking it personally, she shared the experience so that others would learn from her mistake. She occasionally lectures at nursing colleges.
"My students love hearing the unwritten, first-hand experiences. It teaches them how to handle mentally ill people in different situations."
She's learned, too, that stress encourages people to work - that without it, they become sluggish.
"But too much stress can kill you," says Jirungkoon, likening the human brain to a balloon constantly being inflated. "Never let your balloon explode. Keep releasing the air out of it."
Learning how to cope with stress is crucial to remaining sane, she says. That air building up inside can be vented off through activities as simple as showering and listening to music or as tough as getting into a boxing ring - though Jirungkoon warns that smashing stuff isn't a good idea.
She learned the lesson the hard way. She let her stress build up so long that her balloon turned into breast cancer. It's under control now, and Jirungkoon is able to guide others accordingly.
Twenty-two years after joining the hospital, she's still never bored.
"Metaphorically, I'm no different from a dustbin that anybody can throw any trash into," she says, but it's a job Jirungkoon won't give up. There are lives that need saving.