As Sri Lanka continues to grapple with the lingering effects of successive crises, that have pushed countless individuals to their mental, physical, and financial limits, the ‘1926’ Mental Health Helpline and Chat-line stands out as a beacon of hope.
Born from a collaboration between the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and Airtel Lanka, this service has initiated over 1,000 life-saving interventions since launching just prior to pandemic lockdowns two years ago.
To mark World Suicide Prevention Day on 10th September, we spoke to Dr. Vindya Wijayabandara, a specialist psychiatrist at NIMH about the challenging but life altering work taking place at the chat-service, particularly in the context of an unacknowledged mental health crisis that continues to escalate across Sri Lanka, and the potential for more citizens to embark on their own path to healing and recovery.
Q: Could you describe the current mental health landscape in Sri Lanka, particularly in light of recent national challenges?
A: Certainly. We’ve seen a notable increase in mental health issues across all age groups in Sri Lanka due to the psychosocial challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and economic uncertainties. Depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts have become more prevalent. Interestingly, there’s been an increased willingness among people to acknowledge and address these issues. Technology has played a role in this shift, as more individuals are using modern tools and social media to seek help and information.
Q: What are the key challenges faced by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in providing mental health services in Sri Lanka?
A: One of our biggest challenges is the shortage of trained mental health specialists, including psychiatrists, doctors, nurses, and support staff. This shortage is particularly felt in peripheral hospitals, impacting the equitable distribution of mental health services. Additionally, the availability of essential medications remains an ongoing concern, affecting the timely treatment of individuals in need.
Q: Could you tell us about the partnership between Airtel Lanka and NIMH and its impact on mental health services?
A: Certainly. Airtel Lanka’s collaboration with NIMH has resulted in the establishment of the 1926 National Mental Health Chatline. This helpline, sponsored by Airtel, has been operational since October 2020 and has made a significant impact in providing access to mental health information and support.
Q: Can you provide some statistics on the impact of the 1926 National Mental Health Helpline and Chatline?
A: Of course. Since its inception, the helpline has handled 109,044 successful interventions (calls), with 20,166 calls in 2022 and 17,562 in 2023. Additionally, the chatline has facilitated 1,812 chats in 2022 and 2,143 in 2023. The services have been particularly beneficial in the Western Province, where most communications were received. It’s noteworthy that the helpline receives around 50 calls per month related to suicidal ideation.
Q: What challenges did you face in operating the 1926 National Mental Health Helpline, and how were they overcome?
A: Operating the helpline came with its set of challenges. Firstly, we needed to train a team of nursing officers in telephone counseling, which we started in early 2018. Ensuring a dedicated pool of trained staff, finding a suitable location, maintaining 24/7 supervision, and managing record-keeping and data gathering were also challenges. Moreover, the technical aspects were unfamiliar to our staff. However, the dedication of our nursing officers and the unwavering support of the hospital administration have been crucial to overcoming these obstacles.
Q: Looking ahead, what areas do you believe offer potential for further improvement in mental health services?
A: There’s always room for growth and improvement. One area to explore is enhancing the chatline to address certain risks promptly and improve engagement. Additionally, the use of AI technology could be a significant breakthrough. Mental health promotion starting from self-awareness is also crucial, and we plan to empower consumers, caregivers, and volunteers in this regard.
Q: What message would you like to convey to individuals experiencing a mental health crisis?
A: If you’re going through a mental health crisis, please know that you are not alone in your experience. Many others face similar challenges but often hesitate to seek help due to fear of stigma and judgment. I encourage you to share your feelings and concerns with empathetic professionals, preferably a mental health team. If meeting someone in person feels overwhelming, remember that the 1926 National Mental Health Helpline is here for you. Don’t carry the burden alone; help is just a phone call away.