NGO launches toll-free helpline for LGBTQi community

Updated: Sep 29, 2019, 07:52 IST | Anju Maskeri | Mumbai

A Delhi-based NGO launches a toll-free helpline for members of the LGBTQi community to ensure help is always at hand

(From left) Madhu, Maira Khan and Jessica at the Kashmere Gate office. Pics/ Nishad Alam
(From left) Madhu, Maira Khan and Jessica at the Kashmere Gate office. Pics/ Nishad Alam

Our telephonic conversation with trans activist Madhu, who prefers to go by her first name only, is peppered with minor interruptions: phone calls on the toll-free helpline that she mans at the SPACE Community Centre at Kashmere Gate, New Delhi. She politely offers to call us back. "It's not something I can attend to later," she says. "Because, sometimes, it's a question of pulling back somebody from the brink of suicide." Not all callers may be suicidal though. Some are battling existential angst, and need someone to clear up the fog in their head.

Here for you

Madhu, along with two other members of the non-profit, field calls on the national hotline, 1800111015, titled You Are Not Alone from 10 am to 6 pm every day. It's a pilot initiative that was launched in the capital on August 1 to offer mental health assistance and counselling to members of the LGBTQi community across the country. That help is needed more than ever is something that Anjan Nag, director of the NGO, realised when six trans people, who were associated with their community efforts, committed suicide in a span of 30 days this year. "It was a jolt," Nag remembers. "The reason for the suicides were mainly linked to mental health problems." As an NGO, they have been around for the last 18 years and the primary thrust of their effort has been in areas such as healthcare and HIV. "We realised that we were neglecting a crucial aspect: mental health. There is still a lot of stigma attached to non-binary identities. Often, people have nobody to turn to." Given that it's a new programme, the team is still testing waters. At the time of the launch, the team set up kiosks at college campuses and hospitals to raise awareness, and continue to popularise the initiative on social media.

Most callers are in the 18-25 age bracket, and hail mainly from the north, including Punjab, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat. "Millennials, across the gender spectrum, are battling love conundrums," says Maira Khan, a trained psychologist at the centre and member of the hijra community. Understandably, relationships top the list of what people want to discuss. "We also get lots of cases where gay men are trapped in marriages to straight women and want to run away from home, and those related to drug abuse and alcoholism," she says.

Listen carefully

The team was given a two-month long training by mental health professionals to deal with the different situations that callers might find themselves in. "The cardinal rule is to listen. And listen carefully. You can gauge a lot about the caller by the tone of their voice and manner of speaking," explains Madhu, who has been associated with the NGO for ten years. "Some are diffident and hesitant and need constant reassurance that it's a safe place to discuss their issues." As a trained therapist, Madhu says her job isn't to tell you what to do or how to live your life. "I provide options and leave you to make a choice. All I'm doing is lending a helping hand to become emotionally balanced." Recently, she received a call from a transwoman who was in an abusive relationship. "I asked her if she would be able to slowly distance herself from him. A sudden break-up would make him more violent and resentful. The idea was to tackle it smartly," she says. The only template they follow during a call is to request personal details such as age, location and contact details. "The rest we play by the ear," she says.

Maira KhanMaira Khan, trained psychologist at the centre and member of the hijra community

In a day, they receive anywhere between four to seven calls. In order to get over language barriers, the counsellors answer calls in both English and Hindi. "Often, trans members wish to interact with somebody who is also trans. So it made sense to have Madhu and Maira on the job," says Nag. The counsellors speak to them for about 15-20 minutes per session. Sticking to the 15-minute limit isn't always possible because sometimes they just want to talk, admits Maira.

"Simply talking about your thoughts and feelings with a supportive stranger can be therapeutic," she says. In case of a serious mental health problem, callers are referred to the government-run Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences (IHBAS).

Many request for a personal interaction, and in such cases they are asked to visit the centre. "We have a psychologist who provides in-person counselling at our clinic.

We receive at least 20 visitors every week," she adds. Follow ups are mandatory and the team runs calls every two days to check on the status. "Frankly, we don't even have to because they call up themselves. If there's a positive change, they are eager to share the news with you."

Considering it's a helpline, crank calls are common. "Initially, we would receive a lot of them, but it's reduced to one a week," says Madhu.

In the coming months, the team hopes to reach out to the grassroots and make the helpline accessible on a 24x7 basis. "We are progressing. So far, so good," says Nag.

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