- Airtel creates text-based platform to save lives
By Venessa Anthony
Upon realisation that access to quality mental healthcare is a big challenge, and people struggle to identify platforms and specialised people who can provide the help that they need, Airtel Lanka worked to provide a service that could overcome this hurdle, partnering with the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to launch Sri Lanka’s first-ever text-based mental health helpline.
Today, incidents of mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and suicide are on the rise. It is estimated that nearly nine people lose their lives to suicide every day. This means that we’ve lost more lives to suicide than Covid-19, but we’re not aware of that fact, because Covid-19 has more prominently been on the news. Especially in the past two years, it has been reported that isolation and restrictions to socialising, and all of the resulting stress that people experienced, created a surge in mental health challenges. Now the economic situation is making things worse.
Therefore, it is clear that improving mental health is a serious challenge, and Airtel Lanka Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and Managing Director Ashish Chandra took it upon himself to make a positive contribution in solving these issues. Right now, the company’s main goal is to help people come forward, and get the help that they need, while creating awareness about the issue of mental health and the potential solutions that are available.
The Morning Brunch reached out to Chandra to learn more about this initiative and what it entails. Here’s what he had to say.
What inspired Airtel to be a part of this cause?
We are a brand that primarily caters to telecommunication needs, but we are also passionate about how we can leverage that role to holistically improve the lives of all our customers. We also have a major opportunity to make a positive impact, given that the mobile phone is a device that can easily be used to create a direct connection with Sri Lanka’s youth.
These devices are increasingly becoming a tool for young people to express themselves in a deeply personal way. Given this level of comfort and familiarity, these devices are also creating powerful opportunities for initiating positive interventions. As a responsible operator, a partner in the lives of our consumers, we felt we had to take action. The performance of the text-based 1926 helpline since then has validated our thinking.
How did your partnership with the NIMH 1926 hotline come about?
When we started our engagement with the hotline, it was only present as a voice helpline, which came with many challenges. By nature, voice alone limits the amount of conversations that can take place to mere one-on-one interactions, and there is already a shortage of qualified people to handle those conversations.
This created serious challenges for NIMH, especially when it comes to scaling up and supporting multiple people. Additionally, the NIMH team found that younger Sri Lankans were more reluctant to initiate conversations over the phone. Instead, they were much more comfortable with texting, especially at the outset.
We realised that there actually was a tech solution for this, and we were able to quickly develop a solution for creating a text-based service. We created a special platform, using an SMS base, with specialised agents, for people who want to seek professional help. We started on World Mental Health Day in 2020 and have been running it successfully. As a result, the NIMH has been able to provide their services to many more Sri Lankans, and as a result, they have saved more than a thousand lives.
We also asked the NIMH to analyse the performance of the service over the past two years, and what they found is that nearly 80% of those who used the Airtel-NIMH 1926 service were below 30 years of age. It is evident that the youth prefer it. In the last two years, digital tech has evolved, and people wanted more user-friendly platforms to consult with the assistants at the NIMH. Last month, we digitised the platform and expanded it to WhatsApp, which is a richer platform in terms of the options for communication that it offers.
Texting over WhatsApp is much easier, there is no limit placed on how much you can write in a single message, and it has other features that could also prove valuable for this particular purpose. Potentially, it could allow for sharing of voice notes between users and the NIMH team, as well as prescriptions and even video chats. All of this could help to further improve the quality of the interactions on both sides, leading to better outcomes for those who are struggling with their mental health.
How it works is that a particular advisor sitting at one window can answer both texts as well as WhatsApp messages. This can happen in a unified manner. They can handle multiple sessions allowing them to multitask. The same setup can cater to much larger groups.
We are also working on taking mental health awareness to different parts of the country, as in many instances, people may not even realise they are suffering from a mental health problem. Even when they do, they may not understand where or how they can reach out for help.
Education is therefore a key priority, and we’re taking this knowledge to schools, colleges, etc. because we have access to nearly 90% of the population of the country. We want to help take this message to all parts of the island.
What are some other ways that mobile technology can be used to improve access to mental health?
Today, if you look at Sri Lanka, over 80% of Sri Lankans have access to a smartphone and if you want to reach anyone in the country, a mobile phone is the best way to do so. More and more people are available on social media, and nearly 50% of those with access to smartphones are already on social media. This makes it an ideal tool for us to take mental health awareness to the masses in the country, especially to the youth.
There is a lot of enhancement of technology which is happening and being brought to all of us using mobile phones, and many interesting developments in augmented reality, virtual reality, and the Meta space that could have interesting applications for this goal as well.
I am hopeful that in time to come, all these state-of-the-art digital technologies on mobile phones can actually be used as a tool for teleconsultation, where you’re sitting in one part of the country but mental health services are only available in-person, and in another part of the country. Despite sitting 300 km away, you can interact with the advisor as if you are sitting with them in person using AR and or VR technology. Those will come in time; but for now, we are working very closely with the NIMH to find new ways to enhance the existing service using technology.
As a corporate leader, what are your go-to strategies for managing your mental health and that of your team?
I firmly believe in holistic development in an individual, and I take care of my holistic mental health development. I believe that to be completely fit you need to take care of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health. I think these four things need to go hand in hand to achieve total wellbeing.
I believe that a healthy body is important for a healthy mind, so I invest about an hour everyday on exercise to keep myself physically fit. I also maintain a very strong social circle of family and friends. This means that instead of letting emotions build up, we can meet, talk and share what we are going through, and always try to be present and enjoy life together.
Another practice that I think is important to overall health is to maintain at least one hobby. This allows you to express yourself, and keep yourself engaged. For me it’s cycling, and this is something that helps me to de-stress.
Lastly, spiritual health is also important. Whether it’s the belief in a god or any other higher power, you need to have faith that things will work out over time, and that, at least for me, has always been a source of personal strength, especially in difficult times.
As a leader, we do a lot in our organisation because we understand that the lack of a good work-life balance is becoming the biggest reason for people to become stressed and burned out. We try to manage a good work-life balance for our employees by giving them flexible working hours and providing them with work-from-home opportunities, so they can manage their personal commitments better.
Secondly, we provide multiple platforms for people to express their feelings, whether in groups or in person, so that they are always heard. Accordingly, we have created platforms to engage with each other and to also have fun. Typically, we do engaging activities every week such as musical events and fun activities, to de-stress and loosen up a little and create a bond with our co-workers.
When the need arises, we ensure that we are with our people in times of crisis. During Covid-19, for example, there were lots of challenges in terms of finding hospital beds and oxygen cylinders. As an organisation, Airtel teamed up with a few hospitals in Colombo and we reserved a few slots there so that in case any of our employees or their families needed immediate attention they could be catered to and this was extremely important in giving our team peace of mind during a very difficult time.
Similarly, with the economic crisis everyone is worried about making ends meet, so we’ve taken multiple steps to ease that pressure. We can’t completely solve the challenge but we’ve attempted to provide additional financial support so that we get through these challenges together.
We are with our people, keeping a close eye on developments and on what’s happening around us so that we can be of help from time to time. We remain in touch with our employees all the time and we provide them with whatever support that we can. That’s something we do as leaders.