Earlier this week, Dr Arun John talked yet another youngster out of taking his own life. The executive vice-president of Vandrevala Foundation, an NGO dedicated to mental health care, is used to fielding SOS calls at odd hours of the day. But this call was different.
“The youth was in Hyderabad. He had a knife in his hand and threatening to cut himself with it. He told me that he was sick of being stuck in his room for two months, of eating daal and rice every day, and had no one to talk to,” said John. It took several hours of counselling before the working-from-home techie would calm down.
In the two months since the Covid-19 pandemic-induced lockdown was enforced, helplines in Mumbai, like the one operated by the Powai-based NGO, have been besieged by distress calls. “People were earlier depressed due to a number of issues, now it is because are sitting at home,” John said.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned of a “massive increase in mental health conditions” arising from the pandemic in the coming months. Mental health experts in Mumbai have observed an increase in feelings of anger, frustration and helplessness.
According to John, 80 per cent of his callers seek help for issues arising due to the lockdown. “Graphic news visuals are causing a huge amount of fear and mistrust,” he said, adding that his helpline experienced a surge in calls during each extension of the lockdown, whenever stories about bodies piling up in hospitals are broadcast, and even on the eve of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address to the nation.
Tanuja Babre, programme co-ordinator of iCALL, a field action project of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, said clients report how the lockdown has caused uncertainty in education, careers, employment and complicated relationships.
“We ask our clients to speak to people in their support system, be it a friend or neighbour, make tea and sit quietly in a corner or to cook for themselves. Social distancing does not have to mean emotional distancing,” she said. Planning interventions, however, becomes tricky in the case of women and children trapped in abusive relationships, Babre said. “The option of walking out the home after a fight is not available anymore.”
Counsellors at iCALL also focus on helping clients gain a semblance of control in their daily lives. “No one knows how long the lockdown will last and uncertainty leads to higher levels of anxiety. If people have information, they are able to prepare and plan better, the Centre and state governments need to integrate mental health into public health services, identify the most vulnerable individuals and ensure that help reaches them quickly,” she said.
Last month, the Maharashtra government took cognizance of the mental health issue and set up a helpline, Samvaad, in cooperation with Mumbai-based NGOs Prafulta and Project Mumbai.
Godfrey D’Sa, director of Prafulta, said Samvaad concentrates on the concerns of people living in rural Maharashtra and has received over 700 phone calls, half of which are concerned with the scarcity of food and health services since it became operational.
D’Sa suggested that simple steps like voicing fears to family and exercising have helped tremendously. “People have a lot of questions and we do not have answers to them. All we can do at this time is to listen to them,” he said.
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