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Saturday, September 15, 2012

TALK TIME ‘Mental health helplines work like an emotional band-aid’

Tata Institute of Social Sciences Launched Helpline To Deal With Psycho-Social And Legal Issues Two Weeks Ago

 On the morning of September 4, iCALL, the psycho-social and legal helpline mounted by the Tata Institute of Social Services (TISS) was pressed with calls hours before the facility was formally launched. It indicated the urgent need for an accessible counselling service in a country whose mentalhealth requires immediate attention—according to the National Crime Records Bureau, more than one lakh persons committed suicide last year, an increase of 0.7% from the previous year's figure. 

    Research has shown that timely intervention is a crucial deterrent to suicide and a counselling helpline can help solve problems at a preliminary stage. "India does not have enough services or trained professionals to tend to its mental health," points out Professor Sujata Sriram, Chairperson, Centre for Human Ecology at TISS, under whose guidance the helpline was developed. "Where do people go if they have an issue? We set up this helpline 
with the aim of offering it as the first-level service. If callers need, we can refer them to other experts—medical practitioners, other counsellors, clinical psychologists, lawyers and so on." 
    While telephone helplines are supposed to serve as secondary support lines, TISS's press note points out that counselling helplines are of
ten the primary means of aid for people in distress. Indeed, Sriram calls them emotional first-aid. In a country where women and the elderly have few opportunities to seek help outside and where social attitudes to mental illness leave much to be desired, helplines are invaluable. Moreover, they don't ask for callers' names or phone numbers and allow them complete anonymity, should they choose it. This is usually an incentive for people to call. 
    Despite being operational for only two weeks, iCALL already receives about 15 calls a day, some of which last over an hour. Sriram makes it known that the call will last until the caller is satisfied and disconnects. "We're getting many female callers," says Anuradha Karigar, coor
dinator for iCALL. Karigar has some experience in the running of counselling helplines, having helped run SNDT's helpline on adolescent issues. "Indian helplines usually receive a larger number of men, so this development is encouraging," shesays. "We've had a woman call on behalf of her colleague who has marital problems; a mother of an alcoholic called in for counselling; another woman had concerns about the alimony she was getting and how it wouldn't be enough to ensure a good education for her children. We encouraged her to seek out employment but we also helped her with legal advice in the matter of her alimony," says Karigar, adding that the helpline is equipped to handle a range of psycho-social issues—domestic violence, sexuality-related problems, loneliness, substance abuse, parental pressure, ragging, suicidal tendencies and so on. 
    Interestingly, what sets iCALL apart from most helplines is its bi-disciplinarity: it addresses psycho-social and legal issues. Although the legal arm of the helpline will become functional only in early October, its counsellors are trained to respond to basic legal inquiries as well. Often, the three are interlinked-—psychological problems that stem from a social con
text and have legal ramifications. The counsellors are trained in clinical or counselling psychology and have former work experience. The legal advisors have been trained by TISS's School of Law, Rights and Constitutional Governance. 
    Aparna Joshi, a practicing psychotherapist and assistant professor at the Centre for Human Ecology, who has been involved with the project, says that iCALL is an essential service for those who cannot access or afford paid mental health services. "Even though India has a raft of mental health issues, it is deficient in necessary services," she says. "The number of trained professionals and the range of services available are disproportionate to the scale of the problem. Services 
that exist are largely biomedical in nature. But people also need counselling, support groups, advocacy, rehab services and information. Such facilities are scarce even in a metro like Mumbai." 
    The line, which is not yet toll-free (although permissions have been sought from the telecom ministry), hopes to soon have national influence although its spread is presently confined to Maharashtra. In fact, the helpline attends calls not only from Mumbai but from Nagpur, Pune and other cities too. Perhaps soon, with the reach of cellular services, people from villages will start calling in as well. 
    iCALL number: 25563291, from Monday to Saturday, 11am to 10 pm


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