Counsellors offer ‘psychological first aid’ to those in emotional distress

When the second wave erupted like a volcano in India, catching most people off guard, a group of mental health professionals decided to establish a pan-India mental health helpline about a week ago to offer free counselling to those in emotional distress. The kind of calls they started receiving was wide-ranging – from families and friends standing outside hospitals in desperation, unable to find beds for their near ones, to those who were distressed because of “survivor’s guilt” – how they are unaffected while their loved ones were.

The impact of COVID-19 has not just been the obvious physical one; surrounded by pain, death and isolation, the pandemic is having a huge impact on people’s mental health too. Ashwini N.V, Founder-Director, Muktha Foundation, which launched the COVID-19 emotional distress helpline, said though they are primarily an organisation focussed on abuse prevention, they decided to cater to the emotional distress caused by the second wave.

“There are simple things, such as a husband who has hospitalised his wife asking us how to support her emotionally. Some are grieving the loss of dear ones and want to reach out and share what they’re feeling. We have over 50 mental health professionals on rotation taking calls from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. We decided to keep it simple and telephonic, as not everyone is equipped to handle technology,” she said.

The Foundation has counsellors who are comfortable speaking in different languages. “People have self-isolated and are seeking out others to speak out their innermost fears. In other cases, there is nobody to support them and they say they have too many thoughts to pour out. It could be loneliness in self-isolation, fear of contracting the virus, frustration of not getting beds; all we are doing is lending our ears,” she said.

What they are offering, she said, is “psychological first aid” to people suffering emotional distress. “We know we’re not healing them fully. But we are offering emotional support.” The counsellors allot 30 minutes to one hour to each person.

Though most calls are primarily from Bengaluru, where they are based, they are also receiving calls from Maharashtra, Delhi and Haryana. They are getting calls from organisations too seeking support for children who have been orphaned by COVID-19.

Counsellors pointed to the difference in people’s response to the pandemic last year and this year. Mohammad Sayeed, a certified senior mentor who has been counselling at no cost, said in March 2020, people thought that this was a passing phenomenon and tried to brush it aside, diverting their attention by indulging in streaming platforms, etc. By September, they felt the situation was normalising and started travelling.

“Last year, it was more about coping with sudden changes and coming to the reality of disappointments of future plans; about financial crisis and sustainability issues. In April and May this year, the cases are of deep frustrations and hopelessness. When we counsel people to be positive and happy, they have reasons for not responding as they have come across death among their family members, neighbours and friends,” he said.

The trauma is leaving emotional scars. “Now, it seems we are heading towards a more serious situation of uncertainty, hopelessness and anger towards governments, political parties, countries and communities,” he added.

Priyanka Prabhakar, psychologist and Co-founder, Credo Psychological Services, said fear was one of the biggest issues. “There is so much uncertainty about when it’ll get better. The surge was sudden. There is grief to a large extent. People have lost loved ones and are not coming to terms with it. Some others are worried about getting infected and passing it on to others. Loss of security if something happens to parents or partners is also a reason for the increase in anxiety in people,” she said, adding that news about the scarcity of medical facilities, loneliness and work pressure are adding to it.

Some are finding different coping mechanisms. “There is death, pain and suffering all around. People are numbing their emotions because it’s too painful to feel,” she explained.

Somya Awasthi, who has a private practice, said she saw an increase in consultations when the situation was getting better. “Right now, everyone is in sort of survival mode. Physical health is the priority rather than mental health. In March and February, we were getting more enquiries. When the lockdown started, there was a sharp decline. But a lot of underlying conditions are getting amplified because of the situation. The safety of the individual is threatened, not specifically because of COVID-19, but because of anxiety. If a person has OCD or social anxiety, this is not very conducive to their condition,” she explained.

What you can do: Psychologists list out

Think and solve the problem in a pressure situation: Think about who you can reach out to, take charge. Sometimes, if emotions overtake, it is important to cry out. But you can’t be helpless for a long time.

Remember you’re not alone. Everyone is going through something similar and the situation is temporary.

Try to understand how anxiety is good for you and what positives can come out of it. It can help you keep yourself safe at a level.

Try to limit the kind of information you’re taking in. Take a few minutes off this information before sleep or in the afternoon or whatever is conducive.

Keeping a good routine is important. It brings a semblance of normalcy.

Try to include exercise, even if for a few minutes.

Keep your sleeping space and working space separate. Sleep is important for immunity.

Keep some time out for entertainment.

Connect with people you know. Hearing a person’s voice is more effective than texting.

If you find it difficult or overwhelming, turning into a hermit or not doing things required of you, seek help. Breathing difficulties or ignoring health could be manifestations of mental health.

WHO YOU CAN REACH OUT TO

Karnataka Health Department: toll-free number 080-46110007

www.covidhelplinebangalore.com, a volunteer effort (24*7): WhatsApp 702 622 6222 with your name and email ID. Briefly describe your issue in the message. Hold on for a few minutes and coaches will get back with session details.

Muktha Foundation’s COVID-19 emotional distress helpline: Contact 7208202470 (9 a.m. to 3 p.m.), 9567768078 (3 p.m. to 8 p.m.), 8861431673 (9 a.m. to 8 p.m.)

To reach Dr. Mohammad Sayeed, Association for Service to Humanity: Connect on WhatsApp on 9844533460 (10 a.m. to 5 p.m.) or mail [email protected]

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