November 2, 2014, was not just another day for the team of trained mental health counsellors at the Vandrevala Foundation (we usually work on eight-hour shifts and attend to around 120 calls every day). That day, we were sure we would clock over 14 hours. In a few minutes after the clock struck 11 a.m., our phones started ringing vigorously and soon, a never-seen-before surge in calls was observed.
Our counsellors listened to each caller patiently, understanding that this was probably the first time that people across the country were calling at one time, for a range of mental health concerns. The public was opening up and help was available. This was the result of Satyamev Jayate's episode on Nurturing Mental Health that shared the Vandrevala Foundation's helpline number for persons with emotional distress looking for help and counselling or just a listening ear.
A quick summary of some of the calls (names and locations changed):
Gautam, a caller from Jaswari village (Khandwa district of Madhya Pradesh), suffers from schizophrenia and was seeking assistance as there were no mental health professionals in his village. The counsellor informed Gautam that his illness could be treated and he was quite happy to know that he could call the helpline any time and speak with a psychiatrist to better understand and treat his illness.
Varun from Guntakal in Andhra Pradesh who called had considered committing suicide on multiple occasions as he had failed in his exams and felt that life was not worth living. The counsellor provided him with opportunities to speak freely and kept calling him up to the point where it was felt that he was no longer at risk of taking his life.
Asha from Ichhapur in Cuttack district of Odisha called the helpline as she was having relationship issues with her fiancé. She was depressed and was contemplating suicide. The counsellor understood the challenges in the relationship and provided her inputs on improving her relationship.
And how did the counsellors feel after talking to so many people? "We were initially overwhelmed with the volume of calls, and yet were glad that we could reach out to people who now understand that it isn't just physical problems that ail an individual; psychological problems are as important and in fact play a huge part in treating physical ailments," said one of the counsellors.
The significant difference was that we got calls from all over the country—from small towns and all sections of society. We received 30,000 calls in the month following the episode, as well as 4,000 emails! Apart from the large volume, we also saw a wide spectrum of concerns—from callers with suicidal thoughts, relationship issues, and depression, to caregivers who were seeking information on how to deal with family members coping with mental illnesses.
The stigma around mental illnesses is so strong that many individuals feel reluctant to seek help. In such a scenario, this deluge of calls is proof that the mental health helpline can go a long way in bridging the gap between patients and professional help.
We believe that every call we receive is a cry for help and every call is answered and support provided to every caller.
"The Foundation is appreciative of the support provided in furthering the cause of Mental Health through Satyamev Jayate,” said Priya Hiranandani-Vandrevala, Trustee, Vandrevala Foundation. “Additionally, Aamir Khan's continued personal commitment has definitely helped us in our objectives of increasing awareness and reducing stigma associated with mental illnesses."
We have, over the last six years, launched multiple programmes to support mental health initiatives in India, which include the setting up of a 24/7 mental health helpline and counselling centre to aid patients, their relatives and others struggling with mental illnesses. In addition to this, the Foundation has also created an anti-stigma campaign for the education of the general public. This is designed to help dispel negative beliefs about those suffering from mental illnesses.