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Need help? How online counselling can provide mental health support

Gayatri Vinayak
·6-min read

It was in June, this year, that Bengaluru-based Adarsh Kumar * was diagnosed with mild clinical depression. He had already been undergoing couple’s therapy sessions, with an Ayurvedic healing centre attached to an organisation. The pandemic struck, just as the couple were trying to settle down with their lives.

As per the World Health Organisation (WHO), mental illness makes up about 15 per cent of the world’s illnesses. In India, as per data from the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS), around 13.7 per cent people suffered from a form of mental illness in 2015-16. Further, there are less than 4,000 psychiatrists in India – which boils down to just one psychiatrist for more than 13,000 people.

The pandemic, and subsequent lockdown, has made matters worse for the many who have been undergoing therapy and treatment, or have been suffering silently – either because of the stigma attached to it or because they are not sure how to approach for help.

A study conducted by the Indian Psychiatrist Association found that mental illness had increased by 20 per cent in India, since the lockdown. The pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have also led to a spurt in suicides. Financial concerns with job losses and pay cuts, marital discords, domestic violence, child abuse, ill health, isolation and lack of social life and general concerns about the future have all contributed to a rise in mental health problems.

Seeking solace online

For Kumar, who was in between jobs then, the lockdown had made life more miserable. “For a while, until the lockdown ended, I was not getting any counselling. It was stressful but I was trying to manage things,” he explains. As things started to go out of hand and his mental health and marital life spiralled out of control, he started to have suicidal thoughts.

He decided to take matters into his own hands. Kumar first approached a hospital where they diagnosed mild clinical depression and prescribed a medicine. “But the hospital was really far away from my residence and office. For an 8 AM appointment, I would leave home by 6 AM and wait for four hours to speak to the psychologist.” As he had just started a new job, and he was required onsite, things became difficult.

That was when he approached a friend who suggested VIVEKA Centre For Emotional Support, an organisation that provides consultation through its panel of professional counsellors, free of cost. “The idea appealed to me as one of the main concerns about counselling in India is that it is expensive. A good counsellor would charge around Rs 1000-1500 an hour, so that becomes difficult over a longer period of time.”

Kumar was assigned a professional counsellor with whom he has an hourly session, every week. “I stay alone now and since I do not have anyone to talk to about my problems, this is helpful. I get things in perspective and understand what I can do to help myself. This has helped me realign my goals.”

While the sessions look into his mental health problems, the reasons behind it and what can be done to solve it, it also looks at how he can realign his goals to make his life easier. “I am now working with the counsellor to improve areas in my life that I had overlooked or was unmotivated to pursue – be it losing weight or recultivating habits such as reading, we set small goals, but it is surely helping me.” Kumar now plans to continue for a longer period.

Offline vs online: The pros and cons

A major hurdle when it comes to accessing mental health services is mobility, especially with the pandemic and movement restrictions. The internet has helped make mental health treatment more accessible for those who are unable to travel for their regular physical counselling sessions.

As compared to a clinic or a hospital which may be located far away or entail long waiting periods, further exacerbating anxiety, online sessions can be conducted at one’s own convenience. It also helps if an individual is travelling on work or going to their home town since they can continue with their virtual sessions.

However, there are a few flipsides to it, too. While online sessions are useful for an individual living alone, privacy could be a concern for those living with others. “If you are living with family or friends, it may be a bit tough having a session at home as you may be conscious of what you are talking or may not be able to express things,” explains Kumar.

Apart from counselling, there are certain complementary healing therapies that may require the patient’s physical presence, hence, holistic healing could take a back seat during virtual sessions. Further, as Kumar explains, when you are physically present, the psychologist may be able to gauge your mental health and body language better than through a virtual call.

Apps providing virtual therapy sessions

Crisis hotline. Need help? Hand holding a smartphone. New technologies. Therapy. Appointment. Mental health. Millennials. Young lonely female character hugging her knees.
Crisis hotline. Need help? Hand holding a smartphone. New technologies. Therapy. Appointment. Mental health. Millennials. Young lonely female character hugging her knees.

A number of startups and NGOs offer counselling sessions virtually for those who are unable to travel for their physical appointment or wish to speak to a counsellor. Some of these apps are:

Wysa: An AI-powered stress-busting and happiness app, Wysa has a cute looking penguin wellness buddy and health tracker which talks to you about your feelings, guides you through mindful mediation and some exercises to relieve stress. Over a course of a week, where it keeps checking on how you are feeling, it gives you a summary of your emotions and habits. You, however, need to pay extra if you wish to speak to a councillor.

PinkyMind: Is an online counselling app which helps deal with stress, anxiety and depression This offers more of a human touch as, if you go for the chat option, you undergo a 15-minute evaluation session post which you are assigned to a real certified therapist and not an AI-powered chatbot. You can also schedule watch curated videos which provide relationship advice and tips on dealing with anxiety and play stress-busting mind-games.

YourDost: The online counselling and emotional wellness platform, has more than 900 experts on its panel, which include psychologists, life coaches, career coaches. It enables users to discuss their mental well being, work stress, relationship issues, professional and academic problems. The app is available in a number of languages, including Hindi, English, Malayalam, Tamil, Bengali, and many more.

Trijog: Affiliated with the Rehabilitation Council of India, Trijog, founded by a mother-daughter duo, Trijog offers mental healthcare and holistic well-being to individuals, educational institutes, enterprises. Their sessions are charged, with a counselling session starting at Rs 599.