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Sri Lanka medical volunteer sets up counselling help-line

Medical volunteer Mohit Singh, from Canada, has left a lasting legacy following his placement in Sri Lanka.

Placed at the Nagoda General Hospital near Kalutara in May of this year, Mohit began to sit in on sessions with consultant psychiatrist Dr Wijesinghe. He immediately noticed that the most common reason for patients being referred here was attempted self-harm or suicide. Doing a little research, Mohit discovered that Sri Lanka has the highest suicide rate in all of Asia, with the female suicide rate being the highest in the world.

Staff at hospital

Mohit mentioned his observations to Dr Wijesinghe and proposed the idea - common in the West - of setting up a help-line that could provide counselling and emotional support to people in times of distress. The doctor agreed that he had considered this, but being so busy at the hospital, and with few similar projects in Sri Lanka that could provide a template, he had no time to try the idea in practice.

Mohit immediately took it upon himself to see if the scheme could be made to work. Searching all over Sri Lanka, he found a company that ran similar support services in other cities. With proof that counselling help-lines could work elsewhere, he knew he could convince people that it was possible at Nagoda. He then approached Projects Abroad Sri Lanka, who agreed to work in partnership with Mohit and the hospital and try to get the project off the ground.

The next step, seeking official permission from the hospital authorities and the Ministry of Health, was the hardest part and Mohit had a nervous wait as the decision took almost a month to be finalised. Finally, he got the good news he'd been hoping for, and the practical side of the project was rapidly set in motion.

A wireless phone has been purchased, which can be used anywhere in the hospital and Dr Wijesinghe, along with the hospital's counsellors and social workers, have agreed to man the help-line. This month, the new service has been widely advertised in newspapers and on posters around the hospital. It is now officially open to the public and the first callers have begun phoning in. Mohit says: "Hopefully knowing that this help-line is there will reassure people that they are not alone in fighting their problems. However, the Hospital Help Line is currently available only when Dr. Wijesinghe and his staff are at the hospital working. This means about 9-5 on weekdays and 12-3 in the afternoons on weekends."

As Mohit says, "this is a great start and of course better than having no help-line at all". However, he has many suggestions for how current and future volunteers in Sri Lanka can continue and develop the initiative. "The ultimate goal for the Hospital Help Line would be to make it a 24 hour, toll-free service so that it remains open to the public, for free, at all times," he says.

One of the most important things that volunteers can do is monitor how much the line is being used. The more callers are being helped, the more convincing the case will be for expanding the service. Mohit says that volunteers placed at Nagoda General Hospital could help the psychiatry staff to record statistics and to raise awareness of the work they are doing. He has also suggests that volunteers teaching in schools, or working at tsunami camps and care homes, talk to children and young people about the positive aspects of sharing problems and asking for help. This could lead to the reduction of stigma attached to the subject. Another idea is that children could be encouraged, through arts and crafts classes, to make posters and bookmarks advertising the help-line.

Eventually Mohit hopes that companies can be found who will sponsor the project, enabling callers to use the service without having to pay for their call. As he emphasises, even if the help-line can prevent just one person from harming themselves, it's worth the effort.

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