- Airtel and NIMH launch text-based mental health helpline
By Naveed Rozais
The increasing popularity in the dialogue on mental health indicates that more people are seeking help and support than ever before. That being said, there is still so much to be done with regard to de-stigmatising mental health and mental illness in Sri Lanka. The most important of these is the creation of safe environments for people to open up about their emotions and struggles which affect their mental wellbeing.
A landmark achievement has been made on this front with Airtel Lanka and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) launching a new text-based helpline that will allow people to seek mental health support and intervention over SMS.
The “1926” chatline, launched at a private event followed by a panel discussion on raising awareness about the helpline and encouraging its usage among the youths (even those who do not have a pre-diagnosed condition), went live yesterday (10).
The panel discussion was moderated by mental health advocate and digital content creator Shanuki De Alwis and included NIMH senior consultant psychiatrist Dr. Pushpa Ranasinghe, counselling psychologist and psychotherapist Nivendra Uduman, Airtel Lanka Head of Human Resources Kanishka Ranaweera, and Airtel Lanka Chief Executive Officer (CEO)/Managing Director (MD) Ashish Chandra.
Importance of text-based helpline for today’s youths
Dr. Ranasinghe shared that despite reduced suicide rates over the last 20 years, mental health is still a key issue in Sri Lanka. From a societal point of view, there is much to be done regarding increasing empathy as well as fixing stigma and social norms.
Another gap is in professional, co-ordinated services – something the NIMH is able to help with, given their reach and infrastructure across the island. The NIMH has a mental team in each district and is connected to the national emergency helpline 119 as well, giving them the capacity to launch a co-ordinated response to support anyone in need of mental health intervention.
The 1926 chatline is geared towards younger people. “(The use of) mobile phones and text messaging in particular have rapidly become the preferred communication tools among the youths, creating a culture connected to their phones. As healthcare professionals, our dependency on technology is now more important than ever before. As a result of its advancements, we must find improved ways of being accessible to those who need help. We are thankful to Airtel for helping us evolve 1926 from a voice-based helpline to a text-based helpline,” Dr. Ranasinghe said.
How the 1926 chatline works
Using the helpline is very simply where all someone looking for mental health support needs to do is send a text to 1926, after which the user will be connected to professional counsellors who can provide support and counselling via a text message in English, Sinhala, or Tamil.
The 1926 text-based helpline hopes to encourage more young people to reach out to professionals, particularly when they are experiencing times of crisis and may require guidance in mitigating their mental health concerns in a safe and anonymous environment.
Speaking on the launch of the 1926 chatline, Airtel Lanka CEO/MD Chandra explained that digital technologies are transforming learning, socialising, and communication among the youths.
“At Airtel, we are always looking at ways to create meaningful connections for our customers by blending technology with human needs, and this is one such initiative. Our brand is heavily engaged with young Sri Lankans and we are very much aware that they prefer to use digital platforms to engage and find solutions,” Chandra said.
Airtel Lanka has a network footprint across the island and has emerged as Sri Lanka’s fastest-expanding network, being the fastest operator to reach one million customers in the country following its establishment in 2009.
The 1926 chatline launched yesterday (10) to coincide with World Mental Health Day 2020, the theme of which is “Mental Health for All: Greater Investment, Greater Access…Everyone, Everywhere”. The 1926 text service is free for all Airtel users and is also accessible for users of other mobile networks.
During the panel discussion, Dr. Ranasinghe further shared that the chatline will be managed by a separate team of over 20 nurses as well as a team of volunteers who will be trained to work with users over text. Replies would be based on urgency, looking at the severity of the messages as well as the history of the user with various levels of responses, including working with the 119 emergency helpline services to dispatch help in the case of emergency or high-risk situations.
Keeping the 1926 chatline safe
Moreover, Dr. Ranasinghe explained that users are not compelled to share any personal or identification information on the chatline. The only thing the chatline collects is the user’s phone number.
“When someone gets in touch with us on the 1926 helpline and they come into the system, their number is registered; from our side, we make a profile with key information like the risks reported (if they’ve been dealing with violence or substance abuse, if they’re at risk of attempting suicide or self-harm, etc.) The next time the person gets in touch with us, the profile pops up to let the counsellor know if they are at high risk. Only the supervisor can see the details of these profiles. Text messages are not recorded; we make our own paper-based records so that we can treat people more effectively.”
There are very specific situations. For example, if a child is being abused, there will be a handover of information to another agency for effective action to take place.
Creating a safe platform to report mental health issues
Counselling psychologist and psychotherapist Nivendra Uduman, speaking during the panel discussion, said that while technology can contribute to mental health issues, it is also very useful as a tool to getting effective mental health support and intervention. Uduman also explained that communicating through words can have a very meaningful impact, as sometimes it is very difficult for someone to physically voice out what they are feeling, adding that this gives the text helpline an edge over phone and in-person counselling, particularly with the youths.
Dr. Ranasinghe also commented that the youths have a tendency to be very insular with their mental health issues, with many of our youths not opening up to anyone – even close friends or family – for fear of being vulnerable. A text-based platform makes people like this feel much more comfortable, and communicating via text also makes them feel less vulnerable, especially when they contact the 1926 helpline on separate occasions and are counselled by different people.
Uduman commented that the 1926 chatline also gives users the chance to come forward with non-critical mental health issues. “In many cases, symptoms of depression and other mental health issues can be treated long before it comes to (the point of) suicide and self-harm. Youths don’t know how to identify it in themselves.
“The anonymity of text would make them more comfortable talking about day-to-day things like relationship issues, study-related stress, and family situations. It would be easier for them to discuss these things over text than on the phone or in person. Also, with over-the-phone counselling, questions are often geared towards anxiety and depression. Text would be an easier medium for youths to express themselves, especially because of the perception that call lines are for people in a crisis.”
Uduman also said that text-based helplines help overcome issues of privacy because users are able to get help and seek counsel from anywhere and in any situation without needing to worry about being seen or being overheard.