Empathy is perhaps the most crucial tool for a counsellor. But if they feel what the subject feels, where does that leave them at the end of the day?
“Finding a balance between empathy and objectivity has been crucial as the number and intensity of calls has risen during the pandemic,” says Pallavi Singh. She’s a supervisor at the Covid Response helpline launched as a joint initiative at the state of the pandemic, on April 7, by the non-profit health initiatives I Am Wellbeing and Mind Piper, and Sahay.
Through April and May, about 450 Delhi-based counsellors and trained volunteers handled 21,000 calls over 60 days. “People were calling in for all kinds of help,” Singh says. “They were afraid because they had symptoms of Covid-19 and there were no hospital beds in their area. Women were calling about abusive husbands who were now home all day. We even got some calls from children anxious about school and their cancelled exams.”
Cases of people not having food at home or access to immediate medical care for non-Covid conditions were especially difficult to deal with.
“We had set up connections with the DCPCR [Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights] and they followed up on some of the calls,” says Singh. “But sometimes all we could do was talk, and listen. This would leave counsellor feeling helpless.”
Mental health helplines across the country have seen a spike in distress calls since March. The 24×7 helpline launched by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuroscience (NIMHANS) on March 29 received nearly 16,000 calls in its first month.
Added to which, as Singh points out, the counsellors are living through the pandemic too, working from home, juggling the needs of children and loved ones while they work.
Breaks between calls became an essential element of relief.
At Priyanka MB’s psychological well-being centre Inspiron in Bengaluru, which has also been running a helpline since late April, about 15 counsellors take about six calls each per day, each lasting at least 15 minutes.
Every counsellor is required to take a 30-minute break after each call and there is a 30- to 60-minute group detox session at the end of the day.
“We also put in place support groups for our therapists and a system of mentoring to talk about everything we are going through,” Priyanka says.
Covid Response’s support system for its counsellors includes a 60-minute session at the end of each day that enables counsellors to discuss what boundaries can be set with the people they are speaking to, learn from their experiences and up their counselling skills.
“Twenty minutes are spent venting about the day. There is no answer-seeking and solution-sharing during this time,” says Singh. “The middle 20 minutes are spent on skill building, and the final 20 minutes we spend discussing solutions to specific problems.”
Desperate callers — often with sick parents and no hospital willing to take them — would call saying they felt they were on the verge of lashing out or harming themselves. “That kind of call is intense. It takes a lot out of a counsellor. With our breaks and our group sessions, we try and ensure that as crisis counsellors we don’t get lost in the story. Because that’s important too.”