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‘Most suicidal callers just want to feel wanted’

The phone rings in a small, air-conditioned room on the top floor of a Powai high-rise, the office of the private Vandrewala Foundation mental health helpline. Aarefa Johari reports.

mumbai Updated: Apr 08, 2012 01:42 IST
Aarefa Johari
Aarefa Johari
Hindustan Times

The phone rings in a small, air-conditioned room on the top floor of a Powai high-rise, the office of the private Vandrewala Foundation mental health helpline.

Counsellor Shruti Desai answers it on the second ring and spends the next five minutes patiently listening to the woes of a depressed housewife. Occasionally, she interrupts to offer advice — keep busy, divert your mind from depressing thoughts, see the positive side of life. Finally, she gives the caller an appointment for a follow-up call the next day.

Sipping from her mug of tea, Desai then turns to her computer to log the details of the phone call — the caller’s name, the nature and intensity of the problem, action recommended and whether the caller needs further help from a senior therapist or psychiatrist.

Over the next half hour, the phone rings just once more — a prank call from a cheeky teenager.

“Sometimes the helpline gets more than a hundred calls a day, other times, just six or seven,” says Desai, 24, a Thane resident who began working at the helpline nearly two years ago, after getting a Master’s degree in clinical psychology from SNDT university.

Desai and the two other counsellors per shift form the first point of contact for callers at the three-year-old, 24x7 helpline. Their job is to attend calls, conduct a preliminary assessment of the caller’s problems and, if required, transfer the call to a senior counsellor, doctor or lawyer or alert the police, paramedics, or the nearest hospital.

Most calls, says Desai, are from students panicking about an exam, youngsters with relationship problems and depressed housewives. Since the helpline is a national one, there are also calls from rural, debt-entrapped farmers.

“Often, the caller just needs someone to listen,” says Desai.

A smaller number of callers have serious psychiatric problems or suicidal tendencies. “In suicide cases, we have to be there for the client — and buy time. Usually, they just want to feel wanted. But in rare cases, we have had to call in the police.”

A lot of calls are from pranksters and people who think mental health helpline is code for phone sex. “If such calls get out of hand, we just transfer them to our supervisor,” says Desai.

Desai works five days a week, in rotating shifts — 7 am to 2 pm, 2 pm to 9 pm or 9 pm to 7 am.

On the morning shift, her day starts at 5 am, helping her mother, a clerk with the Mumbai police, with the housework and with getting lunch ready for themselves and her father, a BMC lift maintenance supervisor.

Desai then has a quick breakfast of poha or roti and bhaji before the office car arrives to pick her up, at 6.30 am.

At work, even when calls are scarce, Desai has her hands full making follow-up calls — suicidal callers, for instance, are called back once per shift. Desai’s most terrifying call was a potential suicide victim. “He called during the night shift, sobbing and saying he was headed to the nearest railway station to jump in front of a train.” In the course of the three-hour conversation, the counsellors heard him leave the house and head towards a railway station, still crying helplessly.

“We had alerted the railway police, but thankfully, in the end, he chose to live and went back home,” says Desai. “He still calls sporadically, and is now seeing a psychiatrist.”

It is this ability to reach out to those in distress that makes Desai love her job, despite the stress and the odd working hours. “I’ve always wanted to help others,” she says, “and here I can reach out to those who are really in need.”

(This weekly feature explores the lives of those unseen Mumbaiites essential to your day)

First Published: Apr 08, 2012 01:40 IST