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Talk Therapy for India's Depressed

The man, who uses the pseudonym Zaki Shah, is from the hush-hush world of 'talk therapy' where people feeling depressed or suicidal find refuge in the voices of counsellors sitting far away and working at odd hours.

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It is early morning, and inside a single-storey building's basement, a man picks up one of four ringing telephones. He asks the caller in a deep baritone: "But what went wrong?" and steers the person towards an hour-long conversation.

It was a depressed caller, he says later. The man, who uses the pseudonym Zaki Shah, is from the hush-hush world of 'talk therapy' where people feeling depressed or suicidal find refuge in the voices of counsellors sitting far away and working at odd hours.

The time this correspondent spent at the headquarters of this 24-hour 14-state helpline, run by St. Stephen's Hospital and Emmanuel Hospital Association, revealed a world of despair and rescue where identities are withheld as new hopes are born.

The helpline, started in October last year, has seen an increase in the density of calls from Delhi, Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh and even the northeast. Also, more youths from small towns now share their woes on the phone.

"In small towns, visiting a psychiatrist is not a viable option due to stigma and availability. So they find refuge in helplines," says Shah.

The busiest months are February and March when calls a day go up to 100. The reasons: exams and stressed students and parents, say the counsellors.

According to a 2009 National Crime Records Bureau report, 15 people committed suicide in the country every hour. The World Health Organisation says depression, one of the causes of suicide, will be the second-most prevalent medical condition in the world by 2020.

The helpline has nine counsellors working in three shifts, and all they have are computers and telephones. Available on 1860-266-2345, the helpline has received around 2,000 calls so far.

"To maintain confidentiality, we cannot reveal our or the caller's identity to any other person. In telephonic counselling, it is plain talk therapy working," a counsellor who uses the pseudonym Vidhi Sharma said.

"I am not even supposed to tell you my name. It is just the caller who should know about me," she says.

"On telephone, we have to catch the callers' non-verbal cues also. Unlike face-to-face counselling, we cannot analyse the body language. Only tones and words are available to us," says Sharma. The counsellors, mostly with a masters degree in psychology, come trained for the job.

Sharma talks about the "invisible equation" created by these helplines. Overcoming the fear of being judged is the biggest advantage to the distressed seeking help, she says.

The team of counsellors has mastered the art of pulling back depressed callers into life. However, the task is tough when they have to deal with violent callers or elderly who have lost hope.

"It is a challenge to calm down violent callers who first need medical help. Our first priority is to buy time from people who are on the verge of committing suicide," says Shah, who is a theatre artiste when not counselling.

"After a detailed analysis of the caller, we assess if the person needs to be referred to a psychiatrist. Certain calls can leave us emotionally drained too," he says, adding that the callers just want to be heard.

The helpline maintains a database of local psychiatry centres and NGOs that help patients. It does not end here. Counsellors also follow up on each person who called for help.

Coming against the popular perception that "men don't cry", nearly 70 percent of callers are men and they cry, the counsellors say.

"The problems of men and women are alike -- work-related stress, relationship issues and loneliness. Our patriarchal society has created a mental conditioning that says boys are stronger than girls," says a counsellor with the pseudonym Tanvi John.

The callers are mostly from the 16 to 30 age group, says Shah.

In the course of these conversations, some callers become friends of the counsellors.

"It takes an hour to gauge what is on the mind of a caller. Soon, they become regular callers and update us on their lives. It is satisfying to hear them doing well," says Shah as he rushes to attend a call.

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Life | Bigger India | April 2012

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