45,000 dial mental health helpline in 2 months

Half of those who have called BMC-Mpower 1on1 — from Ratnagiri to Punjab — have been anxious about ‘new normal’

June 04, 2020 12:18 am | Updated 12:18 am IST - Mumbai

BMC-Mpower 1on1, a 24x7 helpline to address mental health concerns of citizens in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic, has received around 45,000 calls in just two months, with 52% of the callers anxious about the post-lockdown scenario.

The helpline, which began in April, is a partnership between Mpower, a mental health service provider, the government of Maharashtra and the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC).

Across age groups and backgrounds, callers reported symptoms of depression and anxiety, typically about the future. “While the overall range of callers has been 18 to 85 years, the highest number of calls, at 55%, are in the 26-to-40-year range,” an Mpower spokesperson said.

Trying times

While 52% of the calls centred around anxiety , 22% were about isolation and adjustment, 11% about depression, 5% on sleep-related difficulties and 4% related to exacerbation of previous mental health concerns.

A 72-year-old man from Guhagar in Ratnagiri called to say he wanted his grandson, who lives in Mumbai as a paying guest, to return to the village.

An 18-year-old woman from Punjab called to discuss issues she was having with her family and felt that she was being ignored by them. She also indulged in self-blame. Another 18-year-old woman from Lucknow called because she was having strange dreams over the past two months about snakes and insects, besides dreaming about her father’s death.

A tailor called to say he was worried about the future and was having suicidal thoughts. Another caller was feeling depressed because he was away from his family and had tried every avenue to get permission to travel home, without success.

At least 65% of the calls are in Marathi, 27% are in Hindi and 8% are in English. Even though the helpline was unveiled for Maharashtra, it has received calls across India. While 37% of calls are from the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, 60% are from the rest of Maharashtra and Goa.

Outside Maharashtra, the number of calls is the highest from Delhi at 2%, while Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat follow at 1% each. The helpline is also getting calls from people in Rajasthan, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, and Jammu and Kashmir.

The helpline has a higher number of male callers (69%) as compared to female callers (31%). The helpline runs in three shifts, from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m, when it receives 45% of calls, from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m, when it gets 50% of calls, and 11 p.m. to 7 a.m, when it gets just 5% of calls. A caller who reaches out at night is likely to connect easily to one of the mental health counsellors on the helpline and even receive a bigger window of advice.

Almost 20% called the helpline but disconnected the call before they could speak to one of the counsellors, highlighting the stigma around mental health.

With many cities in India gradually relaxing lockdown norms, BMC-Mpower 1on1 has witnessed anxiety levels about the ‘new normal’. A majority of the concerns were related to safety, anxiety about stepping out of home, returning to work, commute, work-life balance, and family and friends.

To reassure citizens that the helpline is available 24x7 to discuss any of these mental health concerns, Mpower has unveiled a campaign, #MpowerYourTomorrow. It aims to spread the message that it is all right to be anxious, but not to shy away from reaching out and seeking help to addressing one’s concerns.

Neerja Birla, founder and chairperson, Mpower, said, “BMC-Mpower has been able to address many mental health concerns during the [lockdown]. However, now that the lockdown is likely to be lifted in many parts of India, it is natural to feel anxious about what lies ahead. In the past two weeks, we have witnessed callers expressing concerns related to anxiety and uncertainty about what could be the new normal.With #MpowerYourTomorrow, we aim to provide citizens access to quality mental healthcare expertise to support them. We are delighted that around 45,000 people have reached out to us to access and avail of this service, especially in the coming days.”

Food, travel queries

The helpline has also been receiving calls from people across the country asking for help with food, migration and enquiries for COVID-19 testing. The team has been directing them to BMC or State-authorised helplines.

Since March, Mpower has seen a rise in new cases of anxiety, stress, depression and paranoia during the COVID-19 pandemic. To address these concerns, it has been providing counselling and therapies virtually through telephonic conversations, online chat and video calling to help callers through this phase. Additionally, Mpower has been sharing health advisories and tips to parents, young professionals and families to better handle everyday situations.

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