Airtel-NIMH 1926: Saving lives through mindful conversation on mental health  

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The social and economic upheaval of the recent past has undoubtedly tested the resolve of every Sri Lankan. In the flurry of our day-to-day efforts to survive and safely navigate through times of unprecedented crisis, it is often the case that we neglect our emotions, all of which is likely to take a toll on our mental health.     

However, when we consider that the foundation of good mental health comes from the ability to share and discuss the challenges we face, technology is increasingly serving as a channel to bring mental health back to the forefront. This is especially true for younger Sri Lankans who have much greater awareness about mental health, and the impact that it can have on their lives, but often lacked access to professional mental health resources.  

Having recognized the potential to drastically enhance the quality of life of young Sri Lankans by filling this gap, Airtel partnered with the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in 2020 to introduce the ‘1926’ Mental Health Helpline and Chat-line. 

The timely collaboration opened new and effective lines of communication for those seeking professional assistance. Subsequently, the ‘1926’ channels have facilitated 1,000 life-saving interventions. Dr. Pushpa Ranasinghe – Consultant Psychiatrist at the NIMH shared her experiences on mental health, and the life-saving potential that comes from creating spaces for honest and open conversation.     

  1. What are some recent trends among Sri Lanka’s youth pertaining to mental health?

Our environment is one of the key factors determining mental wellbeing. Given the uniquely difficult challenges that so many have faced, we have seen a general rise in mental health issues in our work, and across society.   

While all Sri Lankans have shown tremendous resilience over the past three years, there is a large and growing segment of our society that face extremely difficult struggles, and in such conditions, the ability to reach out for help, and speak out about the challenges we face can often help us to make a significant difference. 

Sadly, we lose as many as 3,000 priceless lives each year to death by suicide, while many more suffer in silence. This is especially tragic when we consider how much of a positive impact that creating awareness, and a culture of openness and inclusivity can have on easing the burden of those suffering from mental health issues.     

One notable trend in that regard is that over 50% of conversations enabled through the 1926 helpline were young adults aged between 20 and 29. A majority of children and adolescents prefer reaching out through the chat-line, as opposed to the conventional helpline, and even among those facing abuse, the ability to discreetly reach out for help via the Airtel-NIMH 1926 chat service has been extremely helpful.  

  1. With over two years of operations, what key findings has the 1926 helpline and chat-line brought about?

It is estimated that 8% of all Sri Lankans suffer from a diagnosable mental illness. There are also large numbers of people who enjoy normal levels of mental health, but get negatively affected by situations they encounter in life. 

This is of course perfectly natural, but the healthiest way to deal with day-to-day mental health challenges is not to bottle it up, but rather to talk about what you are going through. 

Based on our work with the 1926 hotline, some of the most common causes of these episodes tend to be relationship issues, but we also get many requests for dealing with emotional issues, anxiety, and exam-related stress.

We also get a lot of calls from young people who are curious but lack access to basic information and want to simply understand the basics of mental health. But there are also more critical situations in which we get calls or texts from individuals dealing with suicidal ideation, and they require careful support. 

Very often, the Airtel 1926 text-based chat service, and increasingly the Whatsapp service has been especially useful. Many times we find that youth and people going through stressful situations are more comfortable initiating their discussions via text. But it is also useful to provide follow up care as well. Here too, the platform that Airtel built for us to manage and monitor all text conversations has proven to be quite valuable.    

It is also notable that twice as many women sought mental health support in comparison to men through the 1926 hotline, which points to another gap in male mental health that requires our collective attention. Over a third of unnatural female deaths, by both homicide and suicide, are related to relationship issues, therefore it is essential that we as a society consider how we can do more to collectively guide our youth towards better outcomes. Equipping them with the tools to better manage their mental health is the first step. 

These are of course deeply entrenched issues with a great deal of social stigma attached to them. To solve these issues, all members of society must come together in order to promote healthier outcomes. We are therefore sincerely grateful to Airtel Lanka for stepping forward and supporting us to establish the 1926 text-based mental health service.    

  1. What does the 1926 helpline and chat-line entail? 

Initially we operated the 24-hour voice helpline, but we found that a majority of adolescents were reluctant to seek help due to stigma and lack of anonymity. Younger people feel more comfortable talking about their challenges online through text, as opposed to speaking about it over the phone. It has been proven over time that text-based, real time communication with a qualified professional is an effective tool of e-mental health service delivery. 

This was soon followed by our 24-hour chat-line, made possible with the support of Airtel Lanka. The chat-line is free of charge and allows people to engage in one-to-one conversations with a qualified therapist. 

We recently expanded the helpline to include a dedicated WhatsApp service via ‘075 555 1926’. This solution came as a means of optimizing operations and providing more convenience for those in need of mental health assistance, especially due to recent lockdowns and increased events of isolation which potentially result in mental health related issues. 

  1.  As the 1926 helpline expands, what training does your staff go through?

We encourage our staff to inculcate a personal sense of helping others through selfless service. To contribute to society by encouraging people that there is always purpose in life, a lesson with each experience or challenge, and that it is completely normal to ask for help. 

We train our staff to deal with any scenario related to mental health illnesses and symptoms. This allows them to conduct the service impartially but with empathy. They are trained on when and how to escalate or de-escalate a conversation without being mentally or personally affected themselves.

We also plan to train passionate and committed volunteers who are qualified for the role, building on their capability to provide a sense of safety and trust to those who contact the 1926 helpline. 

  1.  What approaches can we adopt to foster a healthier community? 

For those going through a rough patch in life, it is crucial to let them know that they are not alone, never out of options and that it is most definitely not the end. Especially for adolescent and young adults, it is important to remind them that the difficulties they face are often temporary. While we should never disregard the severity of what they may be going through – especially for those who have witnessed or experienced some form of trauma or abuse in their lives – by facing our emotions, and taking care of our mental health, there is always are always paths to a better future.  

As a responsible members of the local community, we can do our duly diligence by being more informed and proactively identify if we or someone we know is struggling with their mental well-being. It is important to maintain self-awareness and work on our ability to empathize, manage stress and always focus on conflict resolution. 

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