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Dialling in

Amid a spate of suicides, a new BMC helpline has received a flood of calls in its first few weeks as, isolated, lonely and under rising stress, Mumbaiites reach out to strangers trained to help.

mumbai Updated: Jun 09, 2013 01:17 IST
Aarefa Johari

To most people, Nalini’s* problems would seem commonplace: a 26-year-old working woman seeking a socially active life, held back by a nagging, restrictive mother. But to Nalini, who had no friends to help distract her or offer her a chance to vent, the daily angry confrontations with her mother were a source of unbridled anxiety, leaving her feeling trapped and hopeless.

When she called Hitguj (Marathi for ‘open dialogue’), the new mental health helpline launched on May 15 by the BrihanMumbai Municipal Corporation, she had reached a peak of angst and frustration.

The counsellor at the other end heard Nalini out and, for the next 45 minutes, gently offered her advice on how she could improve the communication and overall dynamic with her mother.

“This was an ordinary girl who had no severe mental health symptoms, but she had no friends to open up to and needed to vent,” says Dr Shubhangi Parkar, head of the government-run KEM hospital’s department of psychiatry, which operates the Hitguj helpline. “It indicates how much the people of this city need to talk about what’s on their minds, what is affecting their mental health.”

Hitguj is among a handful of helplines in the city dedicated to addressing mental health issues. It was launched two years after the civic body held a meeting with public health officers and identified inadequate mental healthcare infrastructure as one of the many gaps in the city’s public healthcare system.

The city’s response to the helpline highlights just how big that gap has been — in its first week, Hitguj received an average of 100 calls a day, half of them from citizens grappling with anxiety, irritability and depression, many others from people with domestic or marital problems. More than 60% of the callers tend to be above the age of 31; most of them are male.

Other mental health helplines, such as iCall (run by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences or TISS) and the Vandrevala Foundation helpline (run by a Mumbai-based NGO of the same name), also receive between 60 and 100 calls a day.

The most common complaints are depression, anxiety, relationship problems, stress and economic uncertainty.

Over the past few weeks, with the board exam results and college admissions season beginning, the average number of calls has risen to 200 a day. “Most of the calls we get right now are from anxious parents and students,” says Sujata Sriram, chairperson of the Centre for Human Ecology at TISS and faculty advisor for iCall.

Another reason for the rise in the number of callers, say experts, is the recent spate of suicides — particularly two high-profile cases, that of actress Jiah Khan, and of an Antop Hill resident who jumped to his death from a window after walking into the room where his teenaged daughter had hanged herself.

In such a situation, helplines — which are free, easy to access and ensure anonymity — become an essential safety valve for mounting stress and deepening depression.

“We have always lagged in mental healthcare because, as a society, we still stigmatise mental illnesses and often don’t even recognise symptoms of depression in our loved ones,” says Mumbai-based clinical psychologist Dr Seema Hingorrany.

Adds psychiatrist Dr Harish Shetty, a consultant for the Vandrevala helpline: “The number of suicides in the city has increased manifold, and the prevalence of depression is reaching epidemic proportions. In a globalising city, people are grappling with helplessness and severe emotional distress. With long working hours, economic stress and families getting smaller and more disconnected, human distances are increasing, which leads to fear, sadness, loneliness and anxiety.”

(* Name changed to protect identity)