NEWS
15/09/2020 10:39 AM IST | Updated 21/09/2020 5:24 PM IST

‘We Need More Mental Health Professionals, Govt Funding’: Raashi Thakran, Woman Behind New 24/7 Govt Helpline Number

Thakran, who lost her brother to suicide, says we can make a change only when we educate ourselves on mental health concerns and learn to be vulnerable.

Raashi Thakran
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If you or someone you know needs help, call 1800-599-0019 to reach KIRAN, a 24/7 national helpline set by the ministry of social justice. You can also mail icall@tiss.edu or dial 022-25521111 (Monday-Saturday, 8am to 10pm) to reach iCall, a psychosocial helpline set up by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS).

Trigger warning: This article talks about suicide.

Earlier this month, India got its first 24/7 toll-free national mental health helpline for thosein distress when the ministry of social justice launched KIRAN (1800-599-0019). The helpline has over 13 language options and more than 600 volunteers to answer your call in case you need to speak to someone in times of distress. 

It was a long time coming, but this feat wasn’t achieved without effort. Behind it was a petition launched by a 22-year-old woman who lost her younger brother to suicide two years ago.

Raashi Thakran’s story touched a chord and her change.org petition got over 4 lakh signatures, but the journey here wasn’t an easy one. Thakran’s efforts began in the face of a tremendous personal tragedy that left her family shattered. Raghav, her brother and best friend, was just 18 when he killed himself in January 2019. Thakran says she and her family were left “blindsided” by the incident. She later realised that many suicide helpline numbers advertised in India don’t work and left no stone unturned to get a toll-free one from the government. 

But now that she has achieved a major goal, Thakran doesn’t plan to stop her efforts. 

“Our job is not done because this helpline number is in place. There are so many other things that still need to be talked about. First and foremost, the lack of the number of mental health professionals in our country compared to the number of people who actually need treatment, so that treatment gap really needs to be addressed,” she told HuffPost India over the phone.

She plans to form an audit team to ensure the quality of the helpline number is actually maintained. 

Thakran also spoke of her own painful journey in accepting her brother’s death, and how we need to educate ourselves and create more vulnerable spaces, learn and unlearn to make it better for those who experience mental health concerns. 

Edited excerpts from the interview:

The helpline number is a major step forward. How else do you think we can help those who experience suicidal thoughts? 

So this is just one aspect of it. Having a national helpline number should be a basic thing we as a country should have. It can act as a safety net for people who might not have anywhere else to go. It might help them connect with resources. 

Obviously it doesn’t end here. Our job is not done because this helpline number is in place. There are so many other things that still need to be talked about. First and foremost, the lack of the number of mental health professionals in our country compared to the number of people who actually need treatment, so that treatment gap really needs to be addressed. 

The second thing that I will eventually want to talk about is the mental health policy that the government has launched. The policy looks great on paper, but most of those things are not implemented on ground. That is again something that is very very alarming. 

Apart from that we have the budget. The funds that have been allocated to the national mental health programme have consistently been reduced. We already had very little funds and they are being reduced. If we allocate less funds to mental health, how do we make progress in that area? These are things that I want to ask the government. I am working with organisations who will help me run campaigns through which we can question these things. 

What kind of changes do you think the mental health policy, in its current form, needs? 

First of all to make sure that the mental health policy looks at how we view mental health. How we don’t give mental health the same importance compared to physical health. We don’t have a lot of mental health programmes from the government’s side, we don’t have awareness drives and awareness programmes which the government should be running. In a lot of countries the government has their own mental health awareness drives and programmes. We have so many abhiyans, we should be having awareness for mental health as well. 

Where is the policy that we use to spread awareness, educate people, go to the rural areas? People in the rural areas, tier II, tier III cities, they have no idea about how to deal with mental health issues. Farmer suicides are also on the rise and that is also something that we are not addressing. All of these things need to be catered for.

There is also a gap in terms of who can access mental healthcare, a lot of us who are privileged have easier access to it than people with lesser means. How can that gap be filled? 

That gap is definitely there. Like I said if you have more mental health professionals in the field because now there is so much scarcity, there is a lack of accessibility and so if we have more professionals in the field who are providing counselling at a more nominal fee. This is also where the government comes into the picture. Like we have government hospitals where people from lower income groups are given free treatment for any physical ailments. We need to have more counsellors in government hospitals who provide counselling at nominal rates or free of cost. 

Right now the only way for people to access free mental health care is through these helpline numbers. For example in KIRAN, all these psychologists and counsellors are volunteers so obviously it’s free of cost. 

But a lot of people may be uncomfortable talking to people on the phone or they may not have a good network in their areas. So we need to have more government-backed counsellors and psychiatrists and psychologists who provide their services for more nominal fees.  

So first and foremost on an individual level you need to educate yourself, you need to inform yourself with facts. Second thing is to be better listeners.

Your petition said, “It is now my goal to create a safe space for anyone struggling with suicidal thoughts and invoke a sense of will within the government to address mental health issues.” How do you think we can create such safe spaces?

You don’t yourself have to be a mental health professional to be able to help a friend or someone you love who is in distress. You can just create that environment. How can you do that? First of all, educate yourself because we fear what we don’t know, right? So if we don’t know what suicidal thoughts are, if we don’t know what depression is, if we don’t know what goes through their minds, for example what is self harm? Why do people self harm, then we fear that. We fear talking about it. 

So first and foremost on an individual level you need to educate yourself, you need to inform yourself with facts. Second thing is to be better listeners. If you try to be more attentive and active when it comes to listening, then you will automatically be able to create a safe space for that person who might be in distress and they might be able to come and talk to you. So that’s what we can do as a society, we can look out for each other, we can look for signs, we can look for warning signs, we can listen better and then we can link. 

By link, I mean have enough resources, equip yourself with resources which are verified — for example if you know this mental health professional is good, and can help if a person comes to them, keep those resources on hand and share it with people who might need it. 

This journey began with something that was a huge loss. Can you talk about that a little bit, if you’re comfortable? 

All of this began last year. In January 2019 I lost my younger brother to suicide and obviously it just came out of nowhere and we were completely blindsided by it. We did not know how to think, how to react. We had no idea that he was going through something like this. It was very very difficult for us to come to terms with that. 

A lot of people ask me were there signs, can you think of signs that you notice now? I still am in a dark zone when it comes to what happened because there was no sign. It is true that sometimes there are no signs and that was unfortunately our case. Even post that, after it happened, we were in a lot of trauma, lot of grief and in addition to all of that there was a lot of guilt and a lot of regret, at least for me because I was his best friend. We were very close, we shared everything with each other and I thought that if he was ever in pain, if he was ever fearful, I will come to know or he will come to me and say something. But neither of those things happened. I just felt so selfish and so short-sighted that I was probably in my own bubble. I was in my final year of college and I was thinking about how I have a job, what next and what life holds for me. I was so busy thinking about all this so I feel that I ignored the signs, if there were some subtle cues I ignored them or I did not ask him about his issues or I just don’t know… I just feel this way sometimes, my mind just always wanders there. 

But even after that I had some trouble with my own mental health after he passed away because it was very difficult to even get out of that zone. I couldn’t sleep at night. I would get a lot of nightmares, flashbacks and anxiety attacks and it all just got to the point where I was like take me to a doctor. I need help, I need to get better, this is just not working out. 

I was diagnosed with anxiety and PTSD. So I was put on medicines and was asked to go for therapy. And around that time I started researching on a lot of this, about suicide, because I was just looking for answers. I just wanted to know why it happened, why did he not talk to us, just all of those questions were killing me. I had to make sense of the situation, so I started researching and that’s when I came across these helpline numbers and I saw that a lot of them were not working. So that sort of pushed me to start this petition as well. 

What has the year after your brother’s passing been like for you and your family? Did you find the support that you needed?

I think to be very honest the three of us did not want any support. We were just, for a very long time actually, for the first 6 months, three of us cut off contact from a lot of people. Which I know wasn’t the best way to deal with it but we were just like no one will understand outside the three of us. What we were going through, only me and mom and dad could understand each other’s pain. Other people will try to sympathise, but they can’t empathise. They can’t put themselves in our shoes. 

A lot of our families and friends reached out and said we will come visit you, we will come and stay with you for a while, we want to see you and meet you but I guess we started distancing ourselves. It’s still difficult for us to meet people, meet people who we used to hang out with when Raghav was around because it is a reminder of happier times, what we used to be, how it used to be before everything just got shattered. 

It’s still difficult but we have received a lot of support. My friends have been there constantly, they’ve tried to meet me and to hang out. They constantly check up on me, they always call and we discuss stuff and sometimes we discuss Raghav. We talk about all those memories and all of that actually makes me feel a lot better, to be honest. I don’t want to forget him and not a day goes by when we don’t talk about or remember him.

I love talking about Raghav, in fact I love it when I get to speak to some of his friends. His best friend actually, we have gotten very close. He always calls us up, me, mom and dad because, I don’t know, he is one person who knows what the loss feels like.

How do you think we as a society can help aggrieved families? 

I think we need better spaces in terms of support groups. When we lost Raghav, we had been desperately looking for people who had been through something like us. Sometimes it feels a little better to know that you’re not alone, there are other people who’ve experienced a similar loss and it feels good to connect with them. So I have actually connected with a lot of bereaved families through my work and even online and stuff, so I know it is a process for healing when you meet these people. 

But in the beginning months, it was very difficult. I tried so hard but it was very difficult for us to even find a support group in India. We were in Pune at the time so there were no support groups in Pune and we’re right now in Bangalore and there are no support groups here for survivors of suicide loss. 

So we finally found one online community and it is not an Indian community, it is a worldwide community called Families Dealing With Suicide, The Next Chapter. 

All three of us, me and my mom and dad are in that group and that group gave us solace. In that group people would share about their loved ones that they have lost to suicide, someone has lost their son, a daughter, friend, sister, brother, a parent. So that’s how we sort of connected, we felt like we belonged there. So that’s what’s missing here in India, there are no such support groups or communities that would help us feel a little bit more at peace or feel like we belong somewhere. 

Do you think we as friends, family and society leave space for vulnerability for those with mental health concerns? How do you think we as a collective can make things better? 

So talking about vulnerability, this is one thing that I have noticed that so many times — people make fun of (those who show emotions) or they don’t want to show themselves as vulnerable. To be honest, I used to be like that, I hate being vulnerable in front of anyone, I did not even cry in front of anyone because I thought it would make me look weak. 

I had to go through a lot of unlearning to get to this point. I was not ready to fully grieve, I wanted to hold a strong front for my parents and be their strong daughter and not cry or not show any emotions. It was not until I had the mental breakdown that I realised it’s so important to let your emotions flow, it is so important to make sure that you cry it out, make sure that you are vulnerable and that is what I learnt from therapy. Because I was not processing my grief, I was not processing the trauma that I was feeling because of this stigma. I was literally internalising stigma and I didn’t even know it. 

So I think that way therapy helped me unlearn that and then I realised how important it is to be vulnerable because when you are yourself vulnerable, you make that space where people can automatically be vulnerable with you. That is what I think we have to find as a community. 

Even parents, if you want to talk to your kid, if you want to actually help your kid create that vulnerable space, you have to yourself be vulnerable. You can’t yourself always be strong and expect your kid to have that heart-to-heart with you. That’s not how it works, You have to talk about your vulnerabilities, your short-comings so that your kid, your friend, your colleague can talk about it. 

Do you think there is still a taboo around mental health, especially regarding suicidal ideation? A shame attached to it? What can we do to change that?

To some extent, yes. I mean, we have come a long way but we still have a lot to unlearn. There is a lot of conditioning that also needs to be questioned. And here just talking about mental health or suicide is not enough. I mean educating yourself and others and talking about it is very important but it is not enough. You can’t just stop there. Our conditioning also needs to be questioned. We also need to question our definition of normal. What is normal? We sort of try to fit people into these boxes and if they don’t follow that norm we tend to call them “crazy” and what not. 

And as a community, like I said, we need to get our facts right, we need to learn and unlearn. Few years ago there was so much stigma around AIDS right? Because we didn’t want to talk about sex. We did not want to talk about homsexuality or sex in general. But when we started educating ourselves and we started learning more about the issue, and were getting our facts right, we overcame that fear with that knowledge. We were able to overcome that stigma and make scientific progress. 

If we want to make the same progress with mental illness and with suicides which are happening, we need to take the same approach. 

Like I said, now that the helpline number is here it does not mean my job or our job is done, there is still a long way to go.

Now that the suicide helpline number is a reality, do you have future projects that you will be working on? 

Now that the helpline has launched, I want to ensure that the quality of the helpline number is maintained. Because a lot of times when we start helpline numbers in India it works for a while and then it fizzles out. This is why I was adamant that the government launch this helpline number, because when it’s the government you have the right to question them, you have the right to hold them accountable. They are answerable to you. So that’s what I plan to do. I am working with this organisation called WICCI, the Women’s Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and I am a part of their mental health chapter and there I want to create a team which will audit this helpline number, work with the ministry as well and ensure that the quality of the helpline number is maintained. That is my plan. 

Like I said, now that the helpline number is here it does not mean my job or our job is done, there is still a long way to go.  

What does the government in India, according to you, need to do next for more awareness on mental health and wellbeing? 

I know the GDP has fallen, and it’s a terrible situation, but it is important to make sure that in the budget you provide funds to mental health programmes. Mental health is an important part of your healthcare system, it should be an important part of your healthcare system. I know it is important to fight Covid, Covid in fact is leading to a lot of mental health issues. There is a rise in anxiety and depression levels and we cannot ignore that aspect of it. 

Provide funds and ensure that we have awareness drives and programmes in place not just in urban settings but also go towards rural settings. A lot of times we ignore the access to mental healthcare in rural areas especially. That should definitely be something the government should look at.