From coronavirus to career: Calls to a mental health helpline show what Indians are anxious about

A mental menace, too.
A mental menace, too.
Image: Reuters/Francis Mascarenhas
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As the Covid-19 pandemic hit India like a tsunami in April, a mental health helpline in Mumbai fielded between 80 to 100 calls a day from people who were experiencing anxiety and stress related to work, exams, and fear of contracting the virus.

The BMC-Mpower is a free 24×7, one-on-one helpline (1800120820050) that was launched by mental health foundation Mpower in association with the Maharashtra government and the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) at the outset of the pandemic. Overall, the helpline has clocked 72,000 calls with the bulk of callers—45,000—within the first two months of launch in April 2020.

Concerns about career did go up last year amid “job uncertainty, financial instability, and bleak company outlook,” an October 2020 LinkedIn survey found. And while working remotely is isolating, Indians are nervous about returning to work even two months from now.

Social isolation and heightened fear can be especially pervasive for those who already had anxiety or depression before the pandemic hit. “The inability to access day-care centers, religious places, and community centres can further exacerbate seclusion and feelings of isolation, which could potentiate depressive symptoms,” a 2020 paper in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry.

With people trapped in homes, experts say there’s also a high chance domestic violence increased and went underreported. In cases like this, people may not find the time or privacy to talk on the phone. For them, mPower also has a round-the-clock online chat service handled by experienced psychologists.

With the second wave wreaking havoc, these feelings of uncertainty, despair, and helplessness are resurfacing.

Who’s calling the mPower helpline?

Over 80% of the callers were between the ages of 18 and 40.

Within Maharashtra, the helpline received large numbers of calls from cities like Mumbai, Pune, Aurangabad, Nagpur, Nashik, and Solapur. Interestingly, although the helpline was meant for residents of Maharashtra, it also recorded calls from other cities in the country, including Delhi, Kolkata, Lucknow, and Bengaluru, mPower noted.

An overwhelming share of the calls came from men.