The COVID-19 pandemic has led to drastic changes in daily routines, and created intense stress and uncertainty for most others. This has invariably impacted our physical wellbeing, and equally importantly, our mental and emotional health. While it has often been an uphill struggle, organizations like the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) has made significant progress in raising awareness and expanding access to mental health services in Sri Lanka.
In addition to providing in-person care, NIMH is also providing those in need with free access to professional help through its ‘1926’ hotline, and most recently, through its text-based chat service, powered by Airtel Lanka.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on the mental health of people of all ages. Now, more than ever, it is critical to reduce the stigma around mental health struggles. This is often one of the main obstacles to those seeking help. Over the past two years, we noticed a corresponding increase in calls to 1926, with our team of qualified mental health professionals typically receiving about 3,000 phone calls per month. We were able to provide successful interventions in all of these cases, and 220 instances so far, we were able to provide life-saving support to people going through an extreme moment of crisis,”
“With the establishment of our text-based chat service in partnership with Airtel Lanka last October, we also saw a significant increase in younger Sri Lankans between the ages of 14-20 years reaching out for help. Often they would start the interactions by texting, and once they became more comfortable speaking about what they were going through in that format, they were also more willing to speak over the phone. This is already a major step forward, and an excellent complementary service to the call-line, and we are grateful to the Airtel Lanka team for working so closely with us, and getting this chat service up and running free of charge and training our team on its usage. This was a real challenge, and also extremely timely, especially for young Sri Lankans.” NIMH Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, Dr. Wajantha Kotalawala stated.
He noted that the sharp increase in calls for help during the first wave were mainly from middle-aged adults. Sadly a significant proportion of these calls were the result of relationship issues, domestic and intimate partner violence, and associated emotional trauma.
However, with the most recent wave of COVID-19 infections and the imposition of fresh travel restrictions, there have been relatively fewer calls and texts, even from people in extreme crisis situations.
“We received many calls from people dealing with depression and anxiety, mainly as a result of the uncertainty around their future, but even here, the frequency of calls and texts was a bit less than last year. It is not really possible to definitively say why this is happening. Certainly the fact that it has been more than a year since the pandemic was declared means that people are simply getting used to the stress of what they are going through.
“It might also be the case that people are less willing to speak about what they are feeling because they feel their situation cannot improve. But there is always a solution, it starts with talking openly and freely without judgement about what they are going through. We cannot promise any quick results, but we make sure there are a qualified and experienced professionals to help you through any kind of crisis,” Dr. Wajantha stated.
As a result of these initiatives, from the start of the year, NIMH has registered more than 1,000 new clients from all ages, with an average age of approximately 25 years. Typically each person reaching out to us evaluated with their consent from the onset in order to understand how intense their challenges are.
Based on these assessments and several rounds of questions, the counsellors will offer advice that specifically addresses their individual issues. If an issue is particularly serious, they may switch from text to telephone, and even suggest in-person appointments depending on what would be most effective.
“A lot of what is required of us is paying attention and trying to understand what a person is going through, and simply following up with them to see how they are doing, and whether the measures suggested were effective. If they weren’t we can also refer clients to clinicians in their area. While we can’t solve all problems through text or over the phone, we can at least help them understand what their options are.
“It’s important for them to know that in a crisis they can always reach for help and it will be given. If you or anyone you know is in distress – even if it’s over something you feel is a small matter – it can help a lot to speak about what you’re going through to a qualified mental health professional. This can be one of the most powerful actions you take. You don’t have to face it alone, just call or text 1926.”