About two decades back when Priya Hiranandani Vandrevala lost her uncle to suicide and witnessed several family members struggling with mental illnesses, she came to terms with the harsh realities of the subject and the stigma and resistance attached to it, especially in India. Hiranandani-Vandrevala, who lived in the United States, decided to do something about it to aid in equipping a dynamic network of support in the Indian subcontinent.
In 2009, Hiranandani-Vandrevala started her impactful work towards this initiative and has worked together with several agencies in the country to design not just awareness programmes but establish strategies to assist those whose struggles exceed for years at length.
In an interview with SheThePeople, Priya Hiranandani Vandrevala discusses frameworks designed to deal with mental health challenges in India, how her Vandrevala Foundation brings shifts in this regard, why conversations around stigma matter, and how suicide prevention helplines are a need of the hour.
Priya Hiranandani Vandrevala Interview
What led you to start Vandrevala Foundation and subsequently the mental health helpline in India?
Sadly, in 2006, I lost my uncle to suicide and witnessed other family members struggling with mental illnesses. I lived in the US then and began to understand the framework of support for mental illness and hoped to be able to provide services in India, for free to those in need. After investigating where we could do the best, we realised that a crisis prevention service was highly effective in preventing suicides and proceeded to start the service in 2009 to support those in a mental health crisis.
The area of mental health has been largely ignored by philanthropists and by Governments. The mentally ill are shunned in society and most people with mental illnesses do not discuss their issues owing to the fear that they won’t land jobs, find partners or will be shamed.
We are an entirely self-funded organisation and we provide free psychological counselling and crisis intervention for anyone feeling anxious, depressed, stressed, lonely, and suicidal or simply for people struggling to cope. 14 years and 1 million+ conversation later, we continue to give mental health our top priority. Our emergency mental health support service is operational 24x7x365 for all those who need immediate help.
Suicide is highly preventable. Almost, every call to a suicide prevention service globally leads to a saved life. Whilst one cannot measure such phenomena with certainty, the services are favourably used, are of high quality, and are available when no one else is available. 75 percent of our conversations occur outside regular office hours when no one else is available.
From when you started these services to now, what are the growing changes you’ve observed in the way mental health issues are perceived?
I think the train has started to leave the station, but the journey is far from over. Whilst Covid exacerbated the mental health epidemic, it did end up starting a conversation around mental illness being an illness. Celebrities such as Deepika Padukone and Virat Kohli give hope and inspiration to many families as we witness their successes despite their struggles.
In our experience, women who contact us worry that if their illness is known, they will not find a husband and men who contact us are worried they may not find one or, in fact, even lose their jobs. We have also seen that the benefit to our helpline is anonymity and the ability to contact us from your workplace or home so people don’t have to fight stigma to talk to a mental health professional. When we began, we received 150 calls a month which have now grown to 30,000 conversations a month which means many people have the confidence to talk to a professional. We have also used technology such as WhatsApp and now 50 percent of our conversations are on the messaging platform versus the telephone. I am glad that people feel they should reach out to us when they are in a crisis.
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Do you think, as a society, we’re collectively doing enough to tackle the stigma around mental health?
Stigma is the number one issue we have to fight in mental illness and even though some progress has been made, it is not enough. The scale of the issue is so large and so pervasive that unless we spend much more resources to treat mental illnesses, we will find that those suffering will be unable to contribute to society. Unless one can function in society, the stigma will not disappear. When celebrities talk about their battles, it inspires people to seek treatment and helps family members to know there is hope. Media also plays a powerful role and we hope that when people talk about mental illnesses, they also talk about free helplines so that people know where to look for solutions.
With several cases of youngsters taking extreme measures of suicide emerging lately, it’s nerve-wracking to think of cases which go unreported. What measures do you suggest we can undertake for the youth of the country who struggle to voice their state?
We must realise that teenagers dealing with mental health issues can’t navigate on their own and this can increase the risk of suicide. For teens to have good mental health, they need to have strong relationships, spend time doing exercise and have a purpose. However, sometimes, this balance in life does not work. Relationships break down, financial pressures can happen and, sometimes, the future can appear daunting. We offer coping strategies and counselling for those who call or message us.
“Trauma and discrimination are strong risk factors for suicide in youth. Sexual, physical and emotional abuse are all associated with an increased risk of suicide, as are the experience of bullying and loneliness.”
Suicides have a strong link to impulse, so the youth must be made aware of the tell-tale signs that lead to this impulse so that they are aware that they need to seek help, realise that their friend needs help and reach out as soon as possible.
We have to tackle these issues in their lives to reduce the risk of suicide. We also offer psychiatric services for those who may be suffering from conditions that need diagnosis and treatment. Lastly, for those in a crisis, we offer our free helpline to those in need. We encourage youth to call or WhatsApp us anytime they wish.
Awareness is not enough when it comes to dealing with mental health issues. The whole process of acceptance, within the fabric of families in India, is necessary. How has your platform contributed across the country in this regard?
Many of our conversations are with youth who request support to explain their struggles to their parents. We encourage these conversations as we believe the solution is not entirely in the hands of the counsellor and client, but also extends to the larger environment the client lives in. The acknowledgement, validation and support of caregivers are also critical in the journey of healing. These conversations encourage caregivers to enquire about their concerns around mental health treatment access and planning, their impact, support expected from caregivers and environmental modifications for visible impact.
“Awareness does not end with educating and helping those suffering from mental health issues. There’s so much to unlearn and relearn for practitioners who come from the same social milieu with their belief systems.”
What we do at our end is also provide ongoing counselling and mentorship to our counsellors for them to learn continuously how to help people. For instance, we worked in partnership with the Gujarat police to run a 24X7 crisis intervention helpline in two major cities in Gujarat. When there was a spate of suicides in Gujarat, our Foundation with the police started a crisis intervention helpline hub in Surat. The helpline was also the official helpline for several universities across the state.
It’s integral for all forces and authorities to come together and deal with such situations and we ensure to coordinate with departments across several states to create awareness, focus on the extremely mentally ill patients and create an eco-system to care for those living with mental illness.
One of your long-term efforts has been in helping people not just at the onset but also long after they’ve been diagnosed. What methods do practitioners and counsellors use to help people through a long-term crisis?
We understand that clients reach out to us when faced with severe distressing moments. Our efforts in these moments are to stabilise people. We persuade and refer them to consider therapy to address deeper concerns once they are stable. Offering them advice on self-care, making them aware of ways to manage themselves if their crisis moments recur, and being available for them in case of emergencies also go a long way.
Many of our clients seek therapy externally and reach out to us in emergency crises, some reach out when they discontinue therapy and use our services for support. Our therapy wing is open to those who find it convenient to take long-term sessions online with our in-house experts.
What experience have you encountered concerning the mental healthcare of people during and post-pandemic?
The mental health sector has never received any investment but the pandemic served as a wake-up call for everyone to start investing in the sector. Both people and the government realised that there was a huge demand gap that was to be bridged. Asking for help and seeking support boldly has become more acceptable with celebrities openly discussing mental health challenges. People now reach out to discuss mental health issues they perhaps would not have thought of if not for the pandemic.
Our services were in-person before Covid and the lockdown proved to be a huge disruption. However, we moved to add a remote system, added WhatsApp and expanded our counsellor base. Our service grew to 30,000 conversations a month from 1500 conversations a month.
“The pandemic acted as a wake-up call to everyone in the field of healthcare that much needs to be done as far as healthcare infrastructure and the importance of a good healthcare delivery system is concerned.”
What has impacted your growth as a leader with respect to social entrepreneurship?
I have had an extremely supportive spouse, Cyrus, who has supported our work in every way. I’m also surrounded by a wonderful team. We have received great support from institutions such as state police departments, non-profits who have recognised our work and given us awards, counsellors, volunteers and, most importantly, the people who are struggling in a crisis who reach out to us with hope. All of these factors have helped me as a leader to do better in the space.
Being a mentor yourself, how do you suggest we empower more women in leadership positions?
We must recognise that it is hard to balance family and work life and, with this recognition, build support systems to help women in the workplace so that women stay involved in their careers. Ninety percent of our counsellors are women, and since they can work from home and with flexible hours, we think this is a big reason why they choose to work with us.
The foundation’s 24×7 free WhatsApp helpline and suicide prevention number for those struggling with mental health issues is +91 9999666555.