In 2018, the government medical college and hospital in Chengalpattu district started a ‘crisis helpline’ to prevent suicidal thoughts among students. It was the first government medical college in the state to start such an initiative.
The helpline has now turned into a lifeline for not just the students of the college, but also medical professionals from across the state facing severe stress as they fight COVID and even the general public affected by the pandemic.
The helpline has received nearly 500 distress calls ever since it was extended to the public amid the spread of the coronavirus, said Dr Sudhakar, the man behind the initiative.
It has received nearly 100 calls from the student community alone in the last five months, the assistant professor in the department of psychiatry of the Chengalpattu Government Medical College and Hospital told The Federal.
“Initially, we started the helpline only for the students of our college. The round-the-clock helpline is useful for students who can share their difficulties and problems they face in studies, relationship, college administration, etc. In the last two years, we have received 30 distress calls from students of the college,” said Dr Sudhakar.
The helpline is manned by many student volunteers. Young callers feel comfortable talking to them as they can easily relate to the problems being faced.
“They hesitate to share their problems with department’s seniors or doctors,” said Dr Sudha, who is pursuing PG psychiatry at the Chengalpattu Medical College and is a student volunteer providing counselling at the helpline. “Students of my college mostly prefer student volunteers than doctors. So, most of the time, PG psychiatry students are asked to volunteer at the helpline. The helpline is a mobile number. Hence, those who are unable to make a call send a message and then we call them to counsel them,” she said.
“We have many arts and engineering colleges in the vicinity of our college. So, we get regular calls from the student community outside the medical college, too,” said Sudhakar.
The helpline, however, seems to be benefiting medical professionals at the forefront of the fight against COVID the most.
“Most of our alumni students who are now on COVID duty are seeking our counselling,” said Dr Sudhakar. “We also get calls from students who are preparing for higher studies.”
Doctors and medical professionals have been under severe stress since the start of COVID, as they have to spend long hours in hospitals staying away from family.
Besides practising doctors, even medical students involved in Covid duty have been facing stress in the last five months, said K Naveen, former treasurer, Tamil Nadu Medical Students Association.
“The MBBS students who completed their studies in government colleges and are doing their Compulsory Rotatory Residential Internship (CRRI) are facing many difficulties, putting them under a lot of stress,” he said. “While, on the one side, they have to attend to Covid duty without any additional benefits, on the other side, they find no time to prepare for PG exams. Students who have completed their studies from private medical colleges get a lot of time to prepare for the exams,” he said.
The state had announced some incentives for frontline doctors in Covid duty. However, most doctors have not received them and this has affected their morale, said Naveen.
“Tamil Nadu has generally had a good doctor-patient ratio, but the manpower required to fight COVID is not sufficient. The government had invited applications from doctors to work for three months. But not many have shown interest as they will be paid only the salaries and with no other incentives,” Naveen said.
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Amirtha Mani, a PG student pursuing psychiatry, said many students pursuing post-graduation are worried because their education has been affected.
“It is during the PG course that students get a lot of hands-on training. But, in the last five months, they have been put on Covid duty and they have lost the opportunity to get trained in their core speciality,” Mani said. “If this situation continues for six more months, we would have lost a whole year,” she said.
“Even in our COVID work, we as doctors are not able to give our best to the patients due to the lack of a treatment protocol. This is also leaving us depressed,” Mani said.
Female doctors face even more pressure as they have to take care of their families besides their official work, said another PG student pursuing psychiatry at Institute of Mental Health in Chennai, on the condition of anonymity.
“Those who are married and have children aged between two and seven are suffering the most. Many were unable to visit their home for months together. Even if they go home, they tend to show their stress on family members. If we ask the support of higher authorities, they say they have other more important issues to consider. This makes many consider themselves as failures for not being able to handle career and family. This makes them depressed,” she said.
Dr Sudhakar of the Chengalpattu Government Medical College and Hospital said it was high time such a counselling helpline was started in each and every college and institution.
(Dial the helpline to reach round the clock crisis intervention: 80721 68415)