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HELP AT HAND
Pictures by Bishwarup Dutta

From the TV screen actor Naseeruddin Shah offers help to the lonely and the sad. “Are you depressed' Feeling suicidal' Suffering from loneliness' Contact Lifeline.” The ad is aired on Incoda TV, the only channel that is aired in Metro Railway platforms.

Lifeline, a city-based NGO which offers a helpline for those suffering psychological ailments. It isn’t alone. Be it child abuse in the neighbourhood or questions about career, there are helplines in the city to call.

Over the last five to six years, the helplines have grown in number and popularity. As Calcuttans, like their counterparts in other cities, slip into a faster, more expensive lifestyle and new social and sexual identities, often risking traditional relationships and support systems, they are also discovering problems that come with these changes. With nuclear and broken families, hardly any friend, shattered relationships, divorces and stress at the workplace, the urge to communicate grows stronger. And some problems are eternal.

Even the counsellors feel the pressure. Some helplines receive more than 20 calls a day, making it difficult for the staff or volunteers to attend to all of them. “Problems are increasing. Sometimes I think I am going insane as I continue to speak to patients of our organisation,” says Sarmistha Ray, director, Baul Mon, a mental health nursing home with an outdoor department. She does not offer a helpline but takes calls from those who are undergoing treatment or want to be admitted into Baul Mon.

Wide reach

The calls to helplines come from all sections of the society. Sappho for Equality, the helpline that reaches out to lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people, works seven days and gets about 70 calls a week. It can divide the callers into roughly three groups.

The first group comprises callers who like to keep in touch with Sappho but can’t be members because they are less than 18. Members of Sappho make up the second group, which uses the helpline to keep track of the NGO’s activities — it provides information about group meetings and activities and if necessary, sets up counselling session through a referral network and in general, lends an ear. The third group comprises women who might be living a forced heterosexual life. They cannot join Sappho because of their circumstances and call just to talk to people who understand. The majority of the women belong to the 40+plus age bracket. “Sappho doesn’t have any restrictions. Anyone can join us, even if she is married,” says Akanksha, chief coordinator, Sappho.

For married women, or women forced to live a heterosexual role, the helpline provides the only scope of speaking freely. Calls come from places like Malda, Jamshedpur and north Bengal where Sappho doesn’t have offices.

The helpline of Childline, an initiative of the Union ministry of Women and Child Development, Cini Asha and Don Bosco Ashalayam, deals with child-related issues and was started in 2001. This is a 24-hour helpline. Members are trained on the legal aspect of child rights. The minimum qualification for joining the team is a bachelor’s degree. One can become a volunteer after passing higher secondary.

Childline mostly gets calls from police, adults and even magistrates. Most cases deal with child abuse, missing children and trafficking. Children call up too. “Children tend to call when they’ve run way from home or have got lost somehow. Many kids call up when there is no one to listen to them at home. Sometimes children call up as a prank, when we gently make them understand that we can’t entertain them,” says the team member .

Dola Majumdar of Gana Sahayata Welfare Society, an NGO that provides psychological counselling, testing and career guidance, is a clinical psychologist who runs a 24-hour helpline. It provides help for psychological and mental distress along with tele-counselling and individual counselling and career guidance. For tele-counselling the clients have to call between 9pm and 10pm. After giving them a hearing, Majumdar decides whether they need individual counselling or not.

Resource crunch

Most of the helplines try to provide help immediately. Shalini Banerjee is a third-year economics honours student of a reputed city college. She appeared for her final examination this year and was afraid that she would fail. She went into depression after the exams. When things became unbearable she called up a helpline. The woman on the other side patiently heard what Shalini had to say about her state of mind and advised her to accept the truth. “Don’t think about what others will say as there is always a next time. Be patient and wait for the results,” she said calmly. Shalini took the advice.

A 22-year-old English honours student recalls calling up a helpline twice with queries about puberty and homosexuality. “I remember the answers were prompt, detailed and matter-of-fact,” she said.

Childline considers the importance of the situation and acts accordingly. “If we learn that a child is seriously ill on a Sealdah station platform, we go there immediately, alert the police and obtain papers to take temporary custody of the child,” says the Childline team member.

Not all helplines can afford to offer round-the-clock service, though. “What does a person do when he feels low in the middle of the night'” asks a 20-year-old college student who suffered from depression a year back. In despair he had called up a helpline, but no one took the call. “I was feeling so desperate that I felt like running out of my home,” he says.

Sappho has a 12-hour helpline, which functions from 10am to 9pm. Infrastructure is the problem. “I admit that a 24-hour helpline is necessary, but how do we accommodate so many women overnight' We don’t have that kind of infrastructure,” says the Lifeline Foundation coordinator. The NGO has been running two helplines for 11 years, reachable between 6am and 6pm. The calls are attended to by eight volunteers who work three-hour shifts each.

Lifeline says that their volunteers are not tele-counsellors. “We take in volunteers who listen to what the callers have to say. We don’t give them any advice or suggestion,” says the coordinator. The very fact that the callers can talk without being interrupted and have someone listening to them is therapeutic.

Phone pranks

Another problem that the helplines face is that of the prankster-caller. Helplines related to AIDS and sexuality face this more. The Buladi helpline (1097) has seven phones attached to computers that are attended to by 14 tele-counsellors who work on six-hour shifts. A software routes the caller to the phone line that is free. If an HIV-infected person needs help or information about treatment, the phone numbers of hospitals or options for inexpensive treatment are given to him. “We get the maximum number of calls from people in the 25-30 age group. We get a lot of questions about how AIDS spreads,” says a tele-counsellor at the helpline.

But Buladi faces other problems. Nineteen-year-old Shubhannita Roy, a mass communication student in a city college, remembers calling up the helpline. “The Buladi campaign had just started and me and my friends got together and decided to play a prank,” she says.

Another 21-year-old college student confesses: “I called up Buladi and apparently Bulada (referring to the man who picked up the phone) took the call. I made up a problem and also asked something that he did not have an answer to, so he passed the call to someone else. After about 15 minutes they realised that it was a prank and hung up.”

Real calls far outnumber the prank calls, though. “Modernity has its own curses. The more modern you become the lonelier you are, as relationships have become fragile. The inner-circle of friends and family is lacking, so people reach out to strangers,” said Bula Bhadra, professor and head, department of sociology, Calcutta University.

Awareness is also making people reach out. “More people know about the helplines now. With so many helplines coming up, they get the opportunity to voice problems that were left unsaid earlier. The anonymity makes them comfortable,” says psychoanalyst Mohormala Chatterjee.

Senior citizens, however, would prefer more help.

(Names of callers have been changed)

Personal health and well-being

AIDS helpline: 1097 (Buladi)
Childline:1098
Gana Sahayata Welfare Clinic: 9331010337
Lifeline: 24637401/7432
Sappho: 9831518320

Other lines

The Cancer Foundation of India has Calcutta’s only cancer helpline, which can be reached from Monday to Friday from 10am to 6pm.
Dr Maqsood Siddiqi, chairman of the foundation, says: “We started the helpline in 2002 to provide information about cancer treatment, diagnosis and prevention. It helps patients get a second opinion.” Phone: 24053131/6161.
People for Animals Calcutta has a 24-hour helpline. The organisation comes to the aid of animals in distress as well as people inconvenienced by animals. Managing trustee Debasis Chakrabarti says: “We will come and rescue the animal as long as you give us the location.” Phone: 24239100/01
CESC has a 24-hour helpline. “Those who attend the call take down the problem, the caller’s name and the area and give a token number,” says Subrata Mitra, an Alipore resident. Phone: 1912
Police have six helplines. Control room: 100, Lalbazar control room: 22143230 and traffic helpline: 9830010000/ 9830811111
Distressed Women Helpline: 1091
[toll free]
Medical Helpline: 9830079999
Senior Citizen Helpline: 9830088884

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