New Delhi: Restrictions imposed due to Covid-19 might have been relaxed, but Indians continue to express concerns — about catching the disease, allowing children to join school or resuming office — on the 24×7 helpline set up by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS), Bengaluru.
“We have been receiving all types of queries due to tension, anxiety, stress, fear and distress during the ongoing pandemic,” Dr G. Gururaj, director, NIMHANS told ThePrint in an exclusive interview.
“Top queries received by us include questions such as ‘should I send my children to school’; ‘should I send my daughter to office’; ‘I want to travel but should I’; ‘where can I get emergency care’; ‘where can I get a Covid test done’,” Gururaj said.
“During the lockdown and a growing pandemic, people could not go out to seek help. Also, the healthcare services were reduced and transport was not available,” he pointed out.
More than 3 lakh calls in 9 months
The NIMHANS helpline (080-4611 0007) was set up on 25 March, the day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement of a 21-day nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of Covid-19.
The total number of calls received on the NIMHANS platform stands at 3.15 lakh between 29 March and 16 December, excluding the calls received at call centres merged with the institute’s helpline number. After the launch of the helpline, various mental health institutes, such as the Indian Psychiatric Society, merged their helpline numbers with the one set up by NIMHANS. The total number including these calls wasn’t available with the institute.
Initially, the platform was receiving more than 11,000 calls per month, which has now reduced to around 5,000 each in October and November. However, Gururaj said while the helpline continues to receive distress calls, the number of people requiring consultation has reduced significantly.
“From around 30,000 to 50,000 consultations monthly during the initial phase of the lockdown, (the number has now come down to) 1,200 consultations each in October and November,” Gururaj said.
Sources at NIMHANS explained these numbers by saying consultation may include duplication of callers, as one person may need several sessions of consultations. Now, the number is going down, as people have started leaving home to meet their doctors and therapists.
Of the 3.15 lakh calls placed directly to NIMHANS, around 49,000 callers were provided with psychosocial interventions for conditions like depression, anxiety, insomnia, somatisation, and aggravation in mental health issues.
According to NIMHANS’ data, approximately 78.4 per cent of consultations addressed people’s Covid-related concerns. Approximately 24 per cent had pre-existing mental health issues.
Dr Gururaj, known for his extensive experience in the fields of epidemiology, public health and health systems, said there are three categories of people who avail the helpline service.
“The first category is those who show symptoms of anxiety and distress. Their questions include ‘am I likely to get Covid’,” he said. “The second category includes people experiencing symptoms of Covid, while the third category includes people who had Covid and are now facing more issues or side effects.”
‘Mental health of children & elderly the next big thing’
Dr Gururaj said the next big issue that needs to be watched closely is children’s mental health.
“Children are facing stress of the pandemic with online classes going on, lesser physical and social activity,” he said, adding that the nuclear family set-ups were also adding to this.
NIMHANS is also trying to strengthen mental health care for the elderly. “The elderly have been hit badly because of the chances of having comorbidity, age and uncertainty. NIMHANS is planning to expand its existing programs and involve NGOs, private and public partnerships and train more people to handle mental health crises arising among elderly people,” Gururaj added.
However, the director — who was instrumental in establishing the Department of Epidemiology, Centre for Public Health, WHO Collaborating Centre for Injury Prevention and Safety Promotion, and the Public Health Observatory at NIMHANS — believes India has responded very positively against Covid.
“India is a nation within nations. Its public health response has been varied across states. The pandemic has given one message straight and clear — that public health systems and surveillance need urgent attention and strengthening,” he said.