Interview with Raashi Thakran

Aditi Kumar speaks to Raashi Thakran who’s activism led to the creation of India’s first national mental health helpline KIRAN 1800-599-0019.

Content Warning: The article mentions Suicide

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).

We spoke to Raashi Thakran, a Mental Health activist who’s change.org petition “#StandAgainstSuicide: to Launch a National Helpline number for suicide prevention” with over 4 lakhs signatures became successful last month with the launch of KIRAN (1800-599-0019) a 24/7 toll free national mental health helpline for those in distress. 

Excerpts from the Interview: 

COPING WITH THE PANDEMIC

How have you been doing? How are you coping with Covid and everything (happening around it)?

I think now it has become like the norm for me, for most of us I feel. Now we are sort of getting used to that and I am working. I am working from home right now, I am not going to the office. It has been alright, it has been pretty chill. Just spending time with my family. 

So do you have some specific things you do to maintain your positivity and would you like to recommend something for other people who are also feeling very isolated at this time? 

One thing that I really try to do is sort of stay connected with my family and my friends. Since my mom is here and my dad is away, we catch up every night, we have our regular video call sessions and that really makes you feel like you are connected and you can talk about certain things. I try to regularly have sessions with friends and it’s a stress buster for me. 

For myself what I try to do is that I basically try to stick to a routine, I think that has really worked wonders for me. I make sure that even if it is work from home, it should not extend into your personal life. And since I have struggled with mental health issues- I take medicines and I struggle with anxiety and my sleep and so I have to maintain a routine, I have to sleep on time I have to wake up on time, otherwise my whole system just goes haywire and I don’t want to go back there. So I always try to do that and I’m eating healthier home-cooked food. 

I think people have started to increase home cooked meals and the whole experience has come up now when the family comes together and cooks something.

I am also trying to learn how to cook because I’m the worst cook. I don’t know anything so my mom is also taking this time, because she has found me stuck at home so she is like ‘I’m going to teach you how to cook and how to prepare meals and just eat better’. I think that has really helped. And at the end of the day I make it a point that at least once a day I go out, even if it is within my society, because getting that fresh air is so important, with precautions obviously. Getting that sense of connection with nature is really important. So that is how I am trying to cope with this time. And I know it is going to be a while before things even begin to get back. I don’t think it will ever get back to how it was, but some normalcy starts to set in, so it will be a while before that happens. 

You have actually given us some great points- maintain a routine, social distancing is not emotional distancing, keep in contact, make your own meals and make sure you spend some outdoor time. 

Do the things you love or things you have been pushing for a while. I’m trying to read more, I had piles of books in my house but I would never get around to reading them. So I was like a hoarder without ever getting around to reading. So many of us are guilty of that. But I have tried to utilise this time to do something new like cook and read. So yes, that is something that people can try. 

Have you been playing your guitar?

I’ve been playing my guitar as well. But I do it during the weekends, weekdays are a little packed with work. Even when it is work from home it is a little packed. But yes, I have been getting back to singing, playing, and writing a little bit. I had been away from my blog for a really long time. I hadn’t had time to even think of writing something but now I am getting around to it. 

HOW HAS WRITING HELPED YOU

Since you are mentioning writing, I wanted to ask you how it has helped you in your journey. And what would you like to say to other people so that if they are suffering they can find fellows in their experience?

Honestly, writing has been therapeutic for me in a way, because sometimes it is very difficult for me to talk about what I am feeling. Which is also why therapy sessions are a little difficult for me because you have to talk about what you are feeling. I am trying to work on that but at the same time there is something that my therapist also recommended – that when you are not able to speak to someone, when you are not able to say the words or find the words, you write it down, whatever it is you are feeling. That way those emotions and that negativity will get out of your system. 

A lot of times I am also very self critical, so that is another technique that my doctor told me that – you tend to criticise yourself a lot especially when you think it, so thoughts are really fast, they just come to you, in minutes you would have pointed out ten different things you hate about yourself. But when you write it down, that slows down the process. And at the same time she also said to try to write down things that you love about yourself and the qualities that you love about yourself. So that is how I think I got into journaling, writing and I started my blog and then it became all about whatever I know, whatever little knowledge I have I try to put it out in the world and whoever needs it can read it. That became my safe haven and so many people reached out. Also in terms of sharing my story online and writing that down I think it really helped me cope with my loss and my grief as well. So writing has played, again, a very very important role in me coming to terms with whatever has happened since the past year. 

FINDING SUPPORT GROUPS 

You talk about coping with an experience. I read that you were looking out for support groups for families that have suffered from a loss of some kind, especially of a family member. Have you been able to find that support in India? Is it coming up now like on social media websites? 

Coming to support groups, last year onwards, as soon as this happened to us, we were in a very difficult position because as survivors of suicide loss we were looking for a community. We were looking for people who understood and it was very difficult for us – at that point at least – to find a support group or find people with similar experiences. Because come what may when you find people who have been through something that you have as well, you feel like you are not alone and that helps you cope with the loss. I think for the longest time we were just looking for that support system. 

But I was in Pune at that time and we did not find many support groups in Pune, although now I think a lot of online support groups have come up in India – there is one support group by Wildflower Mental Health which is amazing. They have a session almost every week. Similarly there is one support group for survivors of suicide loss which happens every week and it is organised by Sisters Living Works. Now they are coming up, but at that point it was very difficult for us to find those support groups in Pune, and that too in-person support groups. Because we were looking for groups where we could just go, sit, meet people, and share whatever it is we were going through. 

At the end of the day we found an online support group on Facebook, but again it was not an Indian support group/not India based, it was an international one. It was for families who were dealing with suicide. I think that really helped us, we are still part of it, knowing it doesn’t matter where you are around the world. People are from different countries and continents, but grief looks very similar for all of them. Everyone can relate to what you have been through and they can empathise. That was something really beautiful that we established in that group. It has been a place where we found a lot of peace. All three of us. 

ON INTERGENERATIONAL DIFFERENCES IN UNDERSTANDING MENTAL HEALTH

When you are saying that initially it was difficult to find support groups, it just makes me think if it is something to do with the differences in generations. For example the previous generation’s understanding of mental health and now the (conversations that) are emerging. People are more open to talk about their experiences, they are more open in crying out for help. Would you like to say something about that? 

Mental health has evolved drastically over the past couple of years as we know and now this generation, like you said, is more aware, more informed in terms of mental health and also because it has more exposure and definitely because of the internet and social media because previously our parents did not have these resources. They did not have access to all of these means of information. To some extent I think that could also be the cause of why our generation is struggling with more mental health issues and so much anxiety because studies have shown that it has led to a rise in mental health issues, anxiety, depression, so that could definitely be one of the reasons. 

At the same time our parents are not as exposed to it as we are. So we are not on the same page. And I think that leads to that communication gap and generation gap. I believe that if we want to come on the same page we have to make sure that we are the ones who bring our parents up to speed. And the key to that is communication and having a conversation with them. Trust me your parents will never not want to help you. They want to understand. They want to see what is happening. But they are just not able to understand because they have not been exposed like we are. 

So maybe if we try to meet midway and we bring them up to speed, make sure that they read more articles about mental health, they are more sensitised, they read and they watch news channels and they watch movies which talk about these issues so they get our perspective and they are able to see things from our lens. So I think that would help get us on the same page, and decrease that communication gap especially when it comes to mental health. Not just mental health, for a lot of different issues as well. If we are able to bring them up to speed with that, we can feel more comfortable reaching out to them, for help, if needed. 

ACCESS TO MENTAL HEALTH RESOURCES FOR WOMXN AND LGBTQIA COMMUNITY

That we should be precursors of change and that we should bring everybody to at least the same level of understanding. For example all the social prejudices and stereotypes there are about women and they have so many social pressures, (and) that affects their mental health. For example if you see historically, ‘hysteria’ has been related specifically with women. Even pressures that non binary and LGBTQIA communities face in society. How can we bring everyone together to address these issues and the impact they have on our mental health? 

For LGBTQIA community, women, there has been research (that suggests) that they  are more susceptible to having mental health issues like depression, anxiety and other disorders compared to other people, which is why it is very important for mental health to be intersectional. Just like we look at intersectionality in feminism and other issues, it is important to look at that in mental health as well. 

There needs to be diversity, there needs to be inclusion. There has been research that they (LGBTQIA community) are also more likely to go for mental health support services, compared to other communities (social groups). Again, they are the people who reach out to mental health services more than we (other groups) reach out to them. 

It is very important for these services to be non discriminating, because a lot of times these services have their own biases and they come into the picture. In fact there is one study where it is quoted that people from minority groups are more likely to drop out of treatment because they feel that they are not understood by the practitioner, by mental health professionals. So they are more likely to not get that medical help, even if they get it they are more likely to drop out.

From our end we can make sure that these services are accessible, affordable, non discriminating, unbiased, inclusive. As outsiders to the community, we can be better allies in reaching out to them, understanding their perspectives, having conversations and not fearing the unknown, so that we can have more positive and empathetic safe spaces. 

THE KIRAN HELPLINE 

About the Kiran Helpline, can you tell us how it works so that we can explain it to the readers? 

They have done a good job when it comes to availability, they are available in 13 languages. They are working with 26 different institutions that are spread out all across the country. They have also taken into account the north-east region as well as the Jammu region. They have 600+ volunteers and these volunteers are all mental health professionals and experts. They know what they are doing and they are empathetic. I spoke to a couple of psychologists (whom I called) and they have been really understanding and I think they are in it for all the right reasons. 

When you call up the helpline number there is a welcome message, and then they tell you to choose the language, once you choose the language they ask you to choose the region (from) southern region, western, northeastern, Jammu and finally the state. The procedure is long, we have to think how we can shorten it. Since it has only started I’m sure there are going to be a lot of modifications, they will incorporate all those suggestions and feedback. I feel it is a very important and a great step in the right direction. 

What do you think the next step should be and how responsible do you think the state should be? Because this helpline puts a responsibility on the state- that you (state) are the first responder, you have to make sure that you connect the person to the service. What is the next thing the state can do in improving mental health problems, and crisis and responding fast, well in time?

Talking about the helpline number, a lot needs to be done. Just because it has been launched does not mean the job is done. First we need to check how the helpline number is working. So I think the next step for the state and for the ministry should be (to) conduct a survey, once they have completed a month/ two months, as to how many calls you got, what sort of calls you got, how many people were you able to direct to more concrete help in their area. I’m sure the ministry will do it, they might even be chalking out the plan as to how to do it but it is something that needs to be done and that data needs to be put out. I think that could be the next step now. Keep incorporating and auditing this helpline number, it is very important to make sure that this helpline number stays and functions properly. Because what happens a lot of times with the helpline numbers is that they just fizzle out. We don’t want that to happen, I’m sure the government and state don’t want that to happen. 

In terms of long term goals, what I feel is that they can and should work on the Mental Health care Act 2017 and implement that properly. It is something that they should definitely look at. Also we have suicide prevention policies, its not been implemented in India. Lot of countries have implemented proper suicide prevention policies and that has shown results, the numbers of deaths have gone down. I think that is again something the government can look at and should look at – why not have a policy in place?

Another thing that might be farfetched right now but countries have done it- the UK has a Minister for suicide prevention, so why cant we have a minister with a cabinet rank if not for suicide prevention, for mental health and mental wellbeing. 

Continued in Part 2…

Aditi is a Law undergraduate student at the University of Cambridge, and recently completed a diploma in Conflict Transformation and Peace-building. Reading and painting in her spare time, she aspires to challenge the structural dimensions of injustice through her education. She is a Deputy Editor of Bol Magazine.

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