November 8, 2017
By Vandrevala Foundation

Started in August 2009, the Vandrevala Foundation’s 24-hour suicide prevention helpline (022-25706000) offers telephonic counselling for a range of mental health issues.

"Where do you think I should jump from, the fourth floor or the eighth floor?” asked a seemingly composed voice on the phone.

Divya Venugopal, all of 22 and barely into her first job as a counsellor at a suicide prevention helpline, was scared out of her wits. But she managed to keep her voice steady. “It took almost three hours, from 12.30am to 3 in the morning, to calm him,” recalls Venugopal, who was doing the graveyard shift that night about a year ago.

Venugopal’s caller was a middle-aged man fighting a losing battle with Irritable Bowel Syndrome. “He found his condition embarrassing. It confined him to his house, as a result of which he had lost his job and was depressed. He told me he had written a suicide note, kissed his wife and son, and was wondering where to jump from,” says the counsellor, dressed casually in a white shirt and jeans.

Venugopal started off by telling him that he was not alone and that his condition could be treated. It took three hours, but she managed to divert his mind. That wasn’t all.

“I spoke to him every two hours. Even after my shift ended, I ensured that he was called regularly in the next 24 hours, at the end of which we made him visit a psychiatrist,” she says, the success story bringing a hint of pride to her voice.

Three-tier help Started in August 2009, the Vandrevala Foundation’s 24-hour suicide prevention helpline (022-25706000) offers telephonic counselling for a range of mental health issues.

Twelve counsellors, 11 of them girls, all certified clinical psychologists in the age group of 23 to 27 years, have undergone a rigorous 18-day training session, complete with mock calls, in preparation for handling calls that come to the helpline.

“The operation is backed by a sophisticated IT communication system which enables eight people — including psychiatrists, fire and disaster control, and police stations — to simultaneously listen in when a caller is on the phone,” explained Dr Arun John, chief, healthcare division, HIRCO and the person-in-charge of the helpline.

The helpline follows a three-tier system. “The call is first received by a trained clinical psychologist, and then, depending upon the severity and complexity of the call, it is escalated (transferred) to tier II level, which is manned by trained psychiatrists. In life-threatening cases, wherein the caller may exhibit violent or suicidal tendencies, or in acute psychiatric emergencies, the call is escalated further and senior psychiatrists also get involved,” says Dr John.

The helpline also has tie-ups with back-up services to deal with psychiatric emergencies.

Before the third ringIn their air-conditioned office in Powai, a group of three counsellors works in three shifts, manning the 24x7 suicide prevention helpline.

It seems like an easy shift, (not a single call has come in since the shift started at 2 pm), and so the counsellors, a happy bunch of young girls, discuss their stories.

“We had a caller from Chennai, who claimed he had taken 30 tablets of a psychiatric drug, Alprazolem, because his wife ill-treated him. The man went silent in the midst of the conversation. It later turned out that he had had alcohol, which, coupled with the drugs, had made him hallucinate,” says Neha Singh, 27, another counsellor.

“Fortunately, we were able to get his son’s number. We then requested a Chennai-based NGO to contact the family and arrange for a senior psychiatrist to treat him,” she added.

The caller, who suffers from schizophrenia and relationship issues, had changed 20-odd psychiatrists in the last 15 years, but now calls up the counsellors at the helpline regularly, thanking them for saving his life.

“We get a lot of thank you calls,” say the counsellors in unison, breaking into wide smiles.

Once a caller from Bareilly, who had promised one of the counsellors that he would not commit suicide (counsellors are always expected to ‘make a pact’ with the caller, binding him/her into a contract in a bid to prevent an attempt in case a suicidal tendency arises), called up to say he wouldn’t be able to keep his promise.

“We talked him out of it,” remembers Prajakta Sardesai, 23, another counsellor.

“We also arranged help for a lady who used to call up to complain about her abusive alcoholic husband,” recalls Asha Ingle, a 23-year-old counsellor.

And then, at around 3.45pm, out of the blue, the phone rings, and the mood in the room changes.

Every call has to be answered before the third ring. “Time is of essence. Every person who is feeling suicidal has a second thought, even if it’s for 1/10th of a second. That is when they call the helpline. And that’s why it is so important to answer the phone as fast as possible,” explains Dr John.

“I know being in a relationship is not easy. It’s all about compromise. Talk to your wife about how you feel,” Venugopal speaks into the mouthpiece of the telephone.

It makes you wonder: what would a 23-year-old know about relationships — the biggest issue behind suicide attempts as per the help line’s records?

“More than enough,” says Dr John. “The counsellors need not be experts in giving relationship advice. They need to be non-judgemental listeners. They need to make the callers feel wanted.”

Venugopal continues on the phone, “Ask yourself: is it worth giving up your life for this problem? Don’t you think you can resolve it if you give it some time?”

Whenever we receive a call, the counsellor tries to first take down the caller’s address, his/her phone number, and the details of the person the caller is closest to. All counsellors are fluent in English, Hindi and Marathi.

“The average call time is 22 minutes, but with a suicidal caller, it can take far longer, the longest call we’ve had being four hours,” says Dr John.

The phone rings again, and this time, Singh takes a call from a regular caller. “We do follow-ups and call them periodically. But often, we receive calls from the same people, sometimes to thank us and at other times to ask for more help,” says Singh.

There are also anxious people calling to ask if a “particular behaviour — say sweating in the palms during a social occasion — is normal.”

Another counsellor puts a call through to a tier-two psychiatrist — all counsellors are provided with a list of psychiatrists, who are doctors at various hospitals, and are available and willing to attend such calls at specific times on specific days.

By 6pm, all three phone lines are busy, with the counsellors, each wearing headphones, listening to the callers with rapt attention. They jot down details on a notepad and enter them into their computers which have been enabled with software that sorts out the callers and details category-wise, and allows them to get information about previous calls at the click of a mouse.

Dealing with prank calls“Calls come, not just from Mumbai, but from across the country. This is because our number has been flashed on TV screens through a lot of news channels,” says Dr John.

And every call is taken seriously, whether it is a blank call, a missed call, an irrelevant call or simply a prankster calling ‘for fun’.

“A blank or a missed call could be an interrupted call; a person being abused or in an emergency situation might have lost access to the phone. Irrelevant calls indicate flight of ideas, but the fact that the caller has taken the trouble to dial the helpline number indicates that he may need some kind of assistance,” explains Dr John.

And sometimes, the female counsellors receive prank calls from men who just want to talk dirty.

“We do receive a fair share of calls with loud breathing on the other end,” giggles one of the counsellors.

“However, the counsellors have been trained to tackle such calls too. They speak sternly to the caller and tell them that a tracking device on the phone traces the number and even transfers the call automatically to the police station,” adds Dr John.

Our youngest caller was an eight-year-old. “He called to say that his mother had asked him to solve three Maths problems, which he did not. Unfortunately, all three questions had come in his exams and now he was terrified his mother would find out that he had lied to her,” recalls Dr John.

“The oldest caller was an 82-year-old lady who was lonely and depressed.”

It could get you downThe counsellors are a young, happy-go-lucky, cheerful lot. However, there are times when the callers and their issues get them down.

“The nature of the job is such that we need to unwind after each shift. Talking non-stop to anonymous callers facing serious problems in their lives can get very depressing,” agrees Sardesai.

“Often, I have a chat with the counsellors after their shift, about the kind of calls they received. I encourage them to go out and party. We even organise outings for them,” says Dr John.

“We go out for movies or meals. We wait after our shifts to catch up with other counsellors. And we try to ease the tension by talking to each other between calls, whenever we are free,” says Venugopal.

“We act as each others’ counsellors too,” she says with a laugh.

“When I had just joined the helpline, it was tough. I used to worry about the callers a lot. But now, I’ve learnt to handle the pressure well,” says Singh.

The helpline has pick-up-and-drop facilities for the counsellors, who live across the city, right from Prabhadevi, Vashi and Dombivili to Malad.

“All counsellors use pseudonyms while taking calls. They are also given medical indemnity, in case a person does commit suicide despite calling the helpline,” says Dr John.

Suryanarayan, Deepa. "A call centre that sells life", DNA INDIA, 31 October 2010, Accessed 01 October 2021.

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