As India plunged into a lock-down like many other countries, the “new normal” threw everyone into a world of uncertainty and fear. In order to reach out to people, students at Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham started a telephone helpline to stay connected. The Amrita COVID-19 Mental Health Helpline began taking calls on April 11, 2020 and since has become a life-line for many. The helpline was created due to Chancellor Amma’s concern about the emotional distress many are experiencing due to the global pandemic and India’s national lockdown. Amma understood that many people are experiencing intense stress, worry, fear, and sadness, and some are resorting to unhealthy habits that would only increase their emotional stress.
The helpline’s volunteers are Master in Social Work students, who were trained to respond to a variety of categories of calls, and who are also receiving ongoing guidance and supervision. They have enthusiastically been supporting men and women from across India, of varied ages, religions, occupations and languages.
Staying connected is very important in these times, and reaching out to those who are most vulnerable is truly a service in these times. Callers have reported such serious struggles as depression, anxiety, psychotic symptoms, suicidal ideation, substance abuse, domestic violence and more, which called for an immediate and comprehensive response. Many callers were also worried about loved ones living overseas, fear of the virus, a feeling of anger or agitation due to the lockdown, and concerns about family. Callers come from a range of backgrounds. This diversity is also reflected in the MSW and ashram volunteers, who can support callers in many languages, including Malayalam, Telugu, Tamil, Tulu, Hindi, Marathi, and English.
The Helpline, though focusing primarily on emotional struggles, handles a wide range of callers with varied concerns. For callers in need of more specific professional support, the Amrita Helpline functions in collaboration with local psychologists, Amritapuri Ashram doctors, AIMS Psychology and Psychiatry Departments, and AIMS Medical doctors. This allows, for example, a caller expressing a fear of having COVID-19 symptoms to be immediately connected to a physician for consultation.
This response network provides a sense of comfort and allows for more serious, life-threatening, or immediate concerns to be supported by relevant professionals in a variety of fields. The Helpline was organized by an interdisciplinary team from Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences, Amrita TV, and Amritapuri Ashram monastics and householders. To date, in the first 10 days of Amrita Helpline’s operations, more than 500 calls have been received, of which about 150 have been related to mental health issues. Other calls inquired about financial support, and these were directed to two government funds to which the MA Math has made donations.
Amrita’s Master of Social Work program is offered by India’s only UNESCO Chair in Gender Equality and Women’s empowerment and is a two-year full-time residential program that offers world-class opportunities in the field of Social Work.