Vandrevala Foundation’s free helpline is making mental health support easily accessible in India
The non-profit offers free psychological counselling and crisis mediation through a 24x7 helpline service available in 11 vernacular languages.
- Mental health disorders affect 1 in 8 people worldwide, according to WHO.
- In 2021, owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NGO set up mental health support services via Whatsapp.
- Nearly 70% of the NGO's discovery happens on Whatsapp today.
- It facilitates nearly 30,000 calls on a monthly basis.
- It provides 24x7 helpline services for psychological counselling and crisis mediation—free of cost.
Trigger Warning: This story mentions suicide, which may trigger some readers.
In 2005, Priya Hiranandani Vandrevala lost her uncle to suicide. She recalls feeling dejected about not giving him the support he wants—a feeling that has continued to persist even a decade after he is no longer in her life.
“I wasn’t even aware that he had Schizophrenia till I grew up because there was no discussion about it at home,” she tells SocialStory.
Hiranandani-Vandravela's uncle isn't an isolated case. The World Health Organisation reports that mental disorders affect 1 in 8 people worldwide. At home, the situation is no better, with India reporting 1,64,033 suicides in 2021, a 7.2% increase from the previous year.
With age, Hiranandani-Vandrevala noticed many of her family members struggling with mental health issues. She came to terms with the harsh realities of mental health issues and the stigma surrounding it, especially in India.
In 2009, she set up Vandrevala Foundation, a non-profit offering free psychological counselling and crisis mediation through a 24x7 available helpline for anyone going through depression, trauma, mood disorders, chronic illness, and relationship conflict, to name a few, along with paid long-term therapy options.
The helpline is available in 11 vernacular languages –Hindi, English, Marathi, Guajarati, Bengali, Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam, Punjabi and Urdu, making mental health support accessible to a larger section of people.
Further, the NGO has reached out to 75,000 individuals since 2022 and has facilitated around 1 million conversations since its inception.
Offering a helping hand
The NGO started its function in Mumbai and later moved to Delhi, Surat, Pune, and Gandhi Nagar. In its early days, it had multiple helpline numbers which later got changed to one national number. As the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the NGO started working remotely and began offerings calls and exchanges over Whatsapp in 2021.
While the feature is just under 2 years old, it accounts for 70% of how users access the platform. “WhatsApp has opened the communication channel to a new segment that is reluctant to take mental health support offline,” says Hiranandani-Vandrevala.
The latest data collected by the NGO suggests that nearly 65% of people under 18, 50% of people aged 18-35, 28.3% of people aged 35-60, and 8% of people over 60 use WhatsApp to seek mental health counselling. Almost 53% of women prefer to contact the helpline using WhatsApp chat compared to 42% of men.
The NGO now takes up nearly 30,000 calls and around 20,000 messages per month, has onboard 115 mentors, and three trainers who train and supervise volunteers to handle emergency calls and chats.
It has also collaborated with institutions like Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Christ University, Amity, SNDT, and Monfort college, among others, to train and certify volunteers, with 1200 volunteers trained since 2021.
The NGO partnered with the Gujarat police to run a 24X7 crisis intervention helpline in Surat and Gandhi Nagar to deal with the increased suicide cases in 2013 and 2015, respectively. “Crisis helplines can provide a supportive and non-judgmental space for such individuals to talk through their struggles and find a path forward, ”says Hiranandani-Vandrevala.
“Even if they are contemplating suicide, reaching out indicates a strong desire to live and seek support,” she says, adding, “We want to be there for people when no one is.”
“Earlier people struggling with mental health issues were labelled mad, and the problem was not even considered real,” she says.
The lack of functional helplines, trained experts, and affordable solutions are some roadblocks people face while seeking help for mental health issues, Hiranandani-Vandrevala believes.
“Our free helpline is bridging the gap between the patient and the expert. It is not just creating awareness around mental health issues but is meeting the stigma head-on,” Hiranandani-Vandrevala adds.
A 2021 Lancet study shows that in the absence of the pandemic, there would have been 193 million cases of major depressive disorder globally in 2020. However, the analysis shows there were 246 million cases, which an increase of 28% (an additional 53 million cases).
However, Hiranandani-Vandrevala feels that it also left more people talking about mental illness. Most recently, celebrities like Deepika Padukone who have openly shared about their struggles with mental illness, have help alleviate some social stigmas.
There is intervention from the government too. The National Tele Mental Health Programme's, allocation has been increased from Rs 121 crore to Rs 133.73 crore in the 2023 budget.
“As the pervasiveness of mental illness become increasingly apparent, it is important that we expand the reach of mental health services and vigorously advocate for those living with mental illness,” Hiranandani-Vandrevala says.
In the works for the NGO are plans to adopt artificial intelligence like Computerised CBT—a form of delivering therapy online—in the future.
The foundation’s 24×7 free WhatsApp helpline and suicide prevention number for those struggling with mental health issues is +91 9999666555.
Edited by Akanksha Sarma