When work from home is a matter of life and death
Every time Abdul Mabood gets a call on his mobile, he rushes to a room upstairs at his south Delhi home and shuts the door from inside as his wife and daughter watch in consternation. And he remains in the room, sometimes for a couple of hours, calmly listening to the caller, often only speaking lines such as ‘yes, ‘you are right’, ‘I completely understand your feelings’. Mabood is founder of Snehi, a Delhi-based suicide prevention helpline, and these days with his office closed due to lockdown, he is having to take many distress calls at home.
“The number of calls has gone up five times in past one-and-a-half-month, and some of them can be emotionally wrenching. Working from home is not so simple when your job is to counsel those on the brink,” says Mabood.
Uncertainty, isolation, and economic despair, caused by the Coronavirus crisis, have led to a spurt in distress calls to the country’s 30-odd suicide prevention helplines and those working for them—mostly volunteers -- are faced with a new challenge: how to maintain the confidentially of the calls, give a patient and undisturbed hearing to the callers and ensure their own families are not sucked into the vortex of emotions while they work from home.
The nature of the calls to the helplines has also changed—unlike in the past when most were about relationship issues, exams, chronic illness and general financial woes, now they are about loneliness, isolation, fear of losing job, inability to pay EMI / rents, and issues related to domestic violence.
“One of the recent calls was from a young IT professional. While she tried to juggle demands of work and home, her in-laws continuously accused her of neglecting them. She was pained that her husband did not support her despite knowing her situation. She was sliding into depression but did not want to discuss her problem with her old parents,” says Mabood.“In our office we get time to recompose ourselves before we return home. I try hard to maintain my emotional equilibrium as I take these calls at home, but my daughter is already complaining that I am not in a good mood these days, and do not give her enough time.”
The volunteers working for these helplines come from different backgrounds, a lot of them from social sciences, and are trained to ‘listen proactively, and not be carried away by the call. Home with its many distractions, they say, is not the best place to handle such calls.
“Working from home requires multitasking. But we have to remain emotionally invested in the calls we take. However distressing these calls, I cannot discuss them with anyone at home, not even with mu husband, ” says Vaishali Mahindra, who volunteers for Sumaitri, one of Delhi’s oldest suicide prevention helplines. Started in 1988, it is one of the 16 helplines that are affiliated to Befrienders India, the nodal body which coordinates the activities of its 16 member helplines across the country.
In normal times, at Sumaitri’s office in central Delhi, two volunteers work in shifts—one answers a landline telephone, and the other ‘befriends’ visitors. “Our job is not to counsel people, but to befriend them, which means going into callers’ core feelings and making them feel we understand, thereby making a difficult situation more bearable,” says Nalini Malhotra, director Sumaitri. “Our volunteers’ work is more crucial during the ongoing Coronavirus crisis, given the country’s inadequate mental health infrastructure,” she adds.
Rajesh Pillai, president, Befrienders India, says, some of their helplines are unable to function under the lockdown because the volunteers cannot reach their centres and do not have private space at home. “We have issued clear guidelines to our volunteers to create a set-up at home which is similar to the one at our centres where they take calls at landlines. They cannot be casual while taking a call diverted to their mobile phones. Our volunteers generally take call for four hours in a day, and we have told them to remain in one room during the assigned period, waiting for a call, and they should maintain the confidentially and should not discuss the calls with any family member,” says Pillai adding the calls to his organisation’s helplines have increased by 30 per cent. “ But I think this increase does not cover all who need help during the current crisis. Many people experiencing emotional stress may be unable to call the helplines because of lack of privacy as everyone in the family is at home”.
Vishal Demla, an HR professional with a multinational recruitment company, who has studied Social Work, is one of Snehi’s volunteers. Managing calls at helpline’s centre, he says, has its own benefits. “If I was unable to handle a call at the helpline’s centre, I could always seek the help of a fellow counsellor, but this is not possible at home,” says Demla, who before the lockdown, would travel from Gurgaon, where he lives, to Snehi’s office in south Delhi to take call between 8 pm and 10 pm. “ Now during this time I remain shut in a bedroom at home while my wife sits in the next room trying to convince my relatives and friends to not call me during these two hours. ”
Mumbai-based Aasra is one of the country’s first 24-hour suicide prevention helplines, and because of the lockdown, the number of its volunteers has come down from 26 to 6, crippling its ability to take 200 odd calls it gets these days. Many are have to be missed. “We are left with a small number of volunteers because not everyone has a private space at homes to take calls,” says Jonhson Thomas, director, Aasra.
So, these days Thomas spends hours taking calls at home—not an easy proposition, considering he lives in a joint family. “Taking distress calls at home is difficult as there are so many distractions– the noise of children playing, of dogs barking, the doorbell ringing. You cannot talk to a person who is emotionally broken with such noises in the background. So, the backyard is the palace where I end up spending a lot of time these days,” says Thomas.
Talking of the nature of the calls his helpline receives, he says most are related to the ongoing Coronavirus crisis. “The other day, there was a call from a woman whose husband has bipolar disorder. She was having trouble dealing with him as he was not taking medicines and getting aggressive, having remained at home for over a month because of the lockdown. She was worried he might physically harm her and children. The call lasted more than an hour,” says Thomas. “In many cases, people just need to ventilate to feel better. ”
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