Labelled abnormal and shunned by society, men who have sex with men ( MSM) and the transgender community in India face the additional impediment of being at a high risk of HIV infection. While the government attempts to offer help and solutions through targeted interventions ( TIs), they are often unable to reach out to the large number of members in the community.
The Sahaay Helpline, developed by international NGO FHI360 in consultation with the Department of AIDS control ( DAC), Government of India, is an attempt to bridge this gap. “ Out of the total estimated MSM population of 4.27 lakhs in India, the TIs are able to reach approximately 64 per cent. The helpline is not an alternative to the TIs being run by the government but rather a supplementary service that would help to reach out to those members of the population who do not want to receive services from the TIs, perhaps because of the social stigma associated with MSM activities,” says Dr Ashok Agarwal, project director, Sahaay.
Calling the toll free number not only ensures easy access to assistance but also guarantees anonymity. “ When a caller calls the helpline, the Interactive Voice Response ( IVR) guides the caller to choose his/ her options. The caller can either get information by speaking to the counsellor or can listen to the information via IVR or through SMS. There are currently 12 counsellors working on the helpline in three shifts of eight hours each through 24 hours and seven days,” adds Agarwal.
While the helpline was primarily set up to create awareness and offer aid regarding issues of HIV/ AIDS, the Sahaay Project team has found an unexpected number of callers seeking emotional help from the counsellors. The callers also often discuss the intense personal problems they are going through in order to come to terms with their sexual identity vis a vis their social identity.
“ In several cases, the counsellors have also been able to prevent suicide,” reveals Agarwal. One such caller, depressed after being betrayed by his boyfriend, had called the helpline and was contemplating suicide, narrates the doctor. “ He had recently lost his mother and felt it was hopeless to continue living. The counsellor spoke to him about his interests and his passion in life. Together with the counsellor, the caller charted an activity plan for the next three/ four days in which he planned to visit the Jhandewala temple and the Bangla Sahib gurudwara which he had not seen earlier.
The counsellor also asked the caller to make detailed notes of his favourite television shows and share them with her when he called next. He called back five days later to speak to the counsellor and thank her for helping him bring focus and purpose back into his life,” says Agarwal.
Initiated on September 1, 2013, the helpline, available to people in Maharashtra, Delhi and Chattisgarh, has already received approximately 8,000 calls. “ Of these, 20 per cent are repeat callers, meaning callers are calling back for their further needs — indicating a level of satisfaction with the helpline service,” reveals Agarwal.
The project will be in the testing phase until 2014. “ We aim to reach out to 50,000 MSM community members ( unique callers) who are currently not availing service from the government- run TI projects. If we meet the target, we will evaluate the behavioural changes among individuals who have accessed the helpline to deem whether or not the helpline has been a success” says Agarwal, who hopes to aid the government in taking the project to more states across the country.
Sahaay helpline number: 18002000113