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Online therapy platforms offering anonymity are helping India’s Covid-19 related mental health crisis

Sometime last week, a Bengaluru-based founder who started up less than a year ago broke down over a call with his therapist. It hit him that his startup, in the offline training space, may not survive the Covid-19 pandemic. Fearing the outcome and not wanting to discuss it with people close to him, the founder turned to online counselling platform YourDOST for the first time. 

“If things don’t go back to normal in a month or so, I am afraid I will have to shut down the company,” he told the therapist, sounding dejected. “Everything is too uncertain and I don’t want to share this with people at my end as of now.”

In another instance, an IT employee holed up at home for almost a month after an overseas trip, was having sleepless nights. His unproductive days pushed him to turn to doctor consultation platform Mfine to seek some solace.

These aren’t isolated incidents. Fearful founders, stressed housewives and self-quarantined employees are all turning to online therapy to deal with Covid-19-induced anxiety. As a result, a slew of apps including YourDOST, Wysa and Mfine are breaking new ground, with hundreds of Indians reaching out seeking support to grapple with mental health issues. 

Online mental wellness apps have seen 30% spike in Indians calling in to discuss their anxiety connected to the Covid-19 pandemic. And with Indians now dealing with a 21-day lockdown alongside news of an increase in positive cases is only expected to contribute to the anxiety-induced calls.

“For them to actually search for therapy online and seek help shows the kind of threshold people have already crossed,” said Prasad Kompalli, the founder and chief executive of Mfine. “This will increase more as we are headed towards a complete lockdown with long periods of isolation.” 

Five-year old mental wellness platform, YourDOST, saw around 80-100 cases in the last one week where users were calling to discuss their anxiety around the pandemic and how to deal with it. Wysa, which runs a therapy chatbot and chats with actual therapists, saw over 25,000 Indians using their ‘health anxiety’ and ‘social distancing’ tool packs. Moreover, Mfine, which started offering therapy sessions just four months ago, saw that at least 60 people reach out to them in the last week to discuss their anxiety.   

The issue of mental health during the time of this pandemic has also taken center stage in India after two coronavirus-related suicides that happened in the last two months. In February, a 50-year-old man allegedly died by suicide after being diagnosed with an unknown virus. He feared that the virus would affect his family. More recently, a 35-year-old man in Delhi jumped off a hospital after he was suspected to have the coronavirus. 

“Some messages on the platform were around self-harm due to frustration,” said Jo Aggarwal, co-founder of Wysa. “The overall conversation on our platform has been shifted to coronavirus over the last two weeks.” 

While some fear contracting the virus, others are concerned about their parents residing  in different cities. 

Covid-19 scare has also driven people with pre-existing anxieties to have a relapse. In one case, a middle-aged woman recovering from an obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) to wash her hands is  back to square one rinsing her hands more than ever. 

Currently India is on a strict lockdown till April 15. As of now the number of positive cases across the country has almost touched 700 and still counting.

“There is a sense of loss — of freedom, of loved ones and a lack of safety,” said Smriti Sawhney Joshi, lead psychologist at Wysa, who has chatted with around 60-80 people over the last week. “With so much uncertainty around and constant consumption of the virus-related news, the number of people seeking help is only bound to rise.”

Globally, too, mental health is being taken up as an important issue. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerbeg recently pointed out his concern on how the ongoing pandemic could exacerbate depression and mental health issues. He said that the Facebook content moderation team is going to focus on posts related to self-harm in a bid to help the current situation.

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