How iCALL, a free regional counselling helpline, is aiding in reducing distress.

In a recent interview with iCALL- a psychosocial counselling helpline, Local Samosa traces its journey of providing free counselling services for the last 13 years.

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There is no doubt that most people express themselves the best in their own language and the language they are comfortable in and hence, that is the reason why iCALL, a psychosocial counselling helpline, that offers counselling services in 10 languages has been getting more calls seeking help from psychologists, as compared to when it was first started in 2012. The possibility of helplines that someone in distress could call and talk about their problems without the fear of judgment may not be a solution to the broad subject of a person’s mental well-being, but surely an idea with potential. Started by the popular Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai, iCALL is one such platform that provides free counselling services to people in need, and as the Programme Associate at the organization, Madhuri Tambe states, the helpline receives multiple calls from all over India in a day.

The free-of-cost psychosocial helpline for adults was started in 2012 by the School of Human Ecology, TISS as a mental health project to provide professional and free counselling through various mediums like telephone, email, and even chats. "The motive was to provide emotional support to the people, irrespective of their age, gender, sexual orientation or race across the country," Tambe says adding that the helpline, gradually, also started providing multilingual services with psychologists belonging to various other parts of the country. Currently, the helpline is proficient in providing services in Hindi, English, Marathi, Gujarati, Punjabi, Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Konkani. 

So, how does telephone counselling work?

As the organization houses both Clinical and Counselling psychologists, Tambe mentions that they are the counselling psychologists who mostly take people's calls. Callers are directly connected to these psychologists, whose hirings are done based on the minimum qualification, that is, a Master's degree in Psychology, who then not only listens to the callers in distress but also get a thorough understanding of the issues the caller might be facing. During the active hours of the helpline, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., these counsellors also try to suggest some exercises and tasks that the caller can take to reduce the amount of distress and better cope with his problem. However, Tambe states that the e-mail services of the helpline run 24 hours a day and that the organization receives a lot of emails since people are more comfortable writing their problems than speaking about them. 

Currently, the helpline works in 10 languages and the organization aims to designate the counsellors based on the callers' geographical locations. Moreover the counsellors, upon joining the organization go through a few training sessions to be better able to help the people who call the helpline. According to Tambe, the number has received almost 4,50,000 calls since its inception in 2012 which also include follow-up calls that amount to 30%-35% of the total calls. Additionally, the organization also has divisions like iCALL Champs for children. 

Importance of anonymity and common complaints

During our conversation, Madhuri emphasized the importance of anonymity, empathy, and non-judgment in mental health, which is part of their helpline policy with callers. She says, “When we don’t ask people their names or personal details, just listen to them, without asking too many questions or giving suggestions, they tend to become calmer and more comfortable. However, sometimes, the callers might require long-term care, so we refer them to other psychiatrists and psychologists as a 30-40 minute call for emotional support may not help people who are to recover from long-term mental health concerns that may reoccur in the future.”

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As per Tambe, the majority of callers, iCALL receives, display suicidal ideation, and relationship troubles including parent-child, peer and romantic relationships) and even those going through abuse or domestic violence. The professionals are trained to follow certain safety protocols to provide the caller with as much help and relief as possible and take further steps if deemed necessary. She also mentioned that even though there is no age limit to who can call the helpline, the most common group of callers are young adults aged 20-35, which surely indicates a positive attitude and changing perspective towards mental health awareness and willingness to seek help and recovery among the youth in India. 

As a matter of fact, various organizations dealing with health, including WHO, have emphasised the significance of empathy and awareness in reducing distress in this fast-paced world. And, iCALL,  if not anything else, surely strives to tell their callers that "they're not alone".


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