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Help is just a call away

Who does an expatriate with limited finances turn to when faced with depression, stress, family problems? Professionals in Dubai are making attempts to help Indian expats.

By Shiva Kumar Thekkepat, Staff Writer
7 Dec 2006 | 12:00 am
  • Source:Illustration by Ramachandra Babu/Gulf News

Who does an expatriate with limited finances turn to when faced with depression, stress, family problems ? In a recent move, a few NGOs and professionals in Dubai, along with the Indian Consulate, are making attempts to help Indian expatriates.

Jimmy is suffering from nagging headaches. He can't sleep or concentrate on his work. He is keen to see a psychiatrist, but doesn't have the medical insurance to cover it. So, what can he do? Suffer in silence? Not any longer.

He calls 050-4293269 and speaks to Gita Krishnan (of the Indian Community Welfare Committee) who fixes up an appointment for him with clinical psychologist Shailaja Menon for a session on Thursday.

***

Shakila is stressed beyond words. Her domestic life is crumbling, her husband is abusive and violence lurks around the corner. She feels suffocated and needs help. So where does she go? As a stay-at-home wife, she has no income of her own. She doesn't know anybody well enough in Dubai to depend on for such a personal issue.

But, she has read about the Crisis Prevention Programme (CPP) and noted down the telephone number to get through to a counsellor. She dials 4293269. Gita fixes up an appointment for her with counsellor Ann George and now Shakila can at least breathe easy.

***

Mohammad, a labourer, has been depressed for most of the 13 years he has spent in Dubai without even realising it. Debts, round-the-clock work, minimal contact with the outside world including his family, and lack of sleep and privacy have taken their toll.

He has even started considering drastic measures. He can't talk to anyone about his problems; everybody at his labour camp is in a similar situation. He has seen flyers advertising the new CPP at the Indian Consulate when he had been there last month to renew his passport. He still has one folded in his wrinkled shirt pocket.

He makes a call from the lone grocery store closest to his camp at Al Aweer on a Friday. Yes, that magic number again. 4293269. And there he is with a counsellor, Jayaraj, pouring his heart out the next Monday.

***

Does this sound like an ad for a newly-opened clinic? You wouldn't be far off the mark. Except that this 'clinic' is run by the Indian Community Welfare Committee (ICWC), under the aegis of the Consulate General of India, Dubai.

And these are not fictitious medical cases (though the names of the people have been changed to protect their privacy). The incidents cited above were provided to Friday by the new Crisis Prevention Programme (CPP) that ensures bi-weekly counselling sessions in the Consulate premises.

It is any NGO's (non-governmental organisation's) dream come true.

A programme sponsored by the government, but run by individuals - professionals in the field - with the participation of NGOs, and manned by Consulate employees who provide the facilities and logistics required for such an operation.

"It's a very good effort," says Bobby Joseph, a member of Snehathazhvara (Valley of Love), an NGO based in Dubai. Joseph should know; he is called upon to assist in some cases which require hospitalisation or repatriation.

"(The CPP) is rendering yeoman service to the people who need such help," says K. V. Shamsuddin, who runs the NGO Santhwanam, under the Pravasi Bandhu Welfare Trust, to help Indian expatriates. Such praise from fellow NGOs is generally unheard of.

In fact, if one didn't know better, one would conclude that part of the reason is that the ICWC is an umbrella organisation of 40 UAE-based NGOs. But though all member-NGOs are welcome to participate in the programme, no single organisation, including the Consulate, or individual gets credit for it.

As Consul General Yash Sinha puts it, "It is the cause that matters."

And the cause does warrant such participation. "Over the course of my tenure of three years, we had noticed that the Indian community faces a lot of problems which cannot be addressed by the Consulate as part of its normal day-to-day functions," he says.

"Consider that there are a million Indians living in the Northern Emirates alone. The problems they face are many, social as well as mental. Marital discord, depression, problems relating to children ... there is a whole gamut of problems that translate into suicide figures here," says Sinha.

"And we wanted to do something about it. But we are not trained professionals who can treat. That is why we hit upon the idea of involving the community to help the less fortunate in tackling the problem. A group of professionals met me and offered to help people in need."

That set the ball rolling for the CPP, which was first launched on May 18 this year. It utilises the services of a group of volunteer counsellors under the banner of the ICWC, with the Consulate providing the venue and facilities.

The counsellors set up shop at a corner of the Consulate earmarked for the sessions twice a week, on Monday evenings and Thursday mornings, to talk - and listen - to the people who turned up to air their problems.

"And it had an impact," says Sinha. With 74 cases treated till October and intervention in three potentially suicidal cases, the effort does seem to be paying off.

Going by the number of calls they received when the programme was launched, it is a runaway success.

Gita Krishnan of the ICWC, who operates the helpline, clocked 30 calls on the very first day. Of these 18 turned up for counselling the same day. "Most of them were low-paid workers with their families back home in India," says Gita.

"They complained of tension and sleeplessness, mostly work-related problems. Others who called spoke of marriage or family related problems. Some 12th-grade students even called (up) for career counselling."

The reason for the response was a radio programme aired on the channel 104.4 by counsellor Rachna Buxani, who was part of the original team of counsellors that launched the programme.

Initially, Gita faced a language problem with the callers. Working class callers from southern India wanted counsellors who spoke their mother tongue, while most north Indians could manage with Hindi. As far as possible, counsellors who know the regional language are allotted to callers who cannot communicate in English or Hindi.

Reaching out
"We have made an attempt to reach out to them," says Shailaja Menon, a clinical psychologist with the Dubai Community Health Center and the Emirates Diagnostic Clinic in Dubai.

"The broad cross-section of patients we received had financial issues, had loans back home to pay off ... Many of them felt let down by their families, were unable to talk about their problems to their families, leading to depression and suicidal tendencies. There was also the issue of phobias and depression attacks.

"Some severe cases, about five of them, had to be admitted to Rashid Hospital as they were psychotic. A couple of them were delusional or hallucinating. One person had the compulsion to chop off parts of his body or hurt someone.

"In this case we got social workers involved. Joseph Bobby of Snehathazvara visited him every day. B.S. Mubarak, previous Consul of Labour, who was instrumental in getting this programme off the ground, and present Consul, Passports Division, also got involved in that case. So, it's a collective effort."

Interestingly, it was not just the working class that turned up for counselling sessions. "There was (a) good mix of the working class as well as the middle class," says Ann George, counsellor with Al Salam School in Al Ghusais, who is a part of the CPP team.

"The people I saw were mostly taxi drivers, and even a few women. I've had a couple of cases of people who were experiencing marital discord, a woman who was seeking a divorce and another who wanted legal advice on a certain problem that he was facing. One man came in for anger management.''

She has also had three cases of depression, two of whom were referred to psychiatrists. Most of the people who sought our help hailed from middle class backgrounds, she says, and money appeared to be a major issue.

Dr Jayaraj, clinical psychologist and counsellor with Our Own English High School, Sharjah, too feels there was a preponderance of cases from the middle class. "They were mostly cases of depression resulting from financial issues," he says.

"The low-income group generally approach us with problems resulting from financial issues while the higher income group have marital issues. Another group of patients had culture-specific issues; they couldn't adjust to the new environment they had moved to."

Target audience
What was originally conceived as an outlet for labourers who had few means of addressing their mental problems is today benefiting the rest of the community. But what about the labourers?

"We have not been able to get many people who are in labour camps and who have problems in approaching us, admits Shailaja.

"We can understand the constraints; lack of time and transport. It would also be difficult for them to travel to the Consulate for consultations. And we can't go to the labour camps as most of us in the group are women. Ideally, we would like to conduct workshops for them to create an awareness (about counselling and its benefits)."

"Their main difficulty is in getting to the venue," agrees Ann. Not many can afford the bus or taxi fares. "Also, the only day they may be able to come for consultations is on Fridays when we don't have sessions. So it's a bit of a bind."

However, there may be hope for them yet. "We have just started the second phase of the programme now (after a break during Ramadan)," explains Sinha.

"After it is sufficiently popular, we may reach out to workers (in the camps) by organising regular visits to labour camps. The problems of the labourers are part of the (growing trend of suicides in the UAE). If we can include them within the programme, perhaps we can curtail the crisis."

Dr Jayaraj is clear that the programme should focus its attention on the labour class.

"Their plight is extraordinary," he says. "They can't talk openly to anybody, they have no real friends, and most surely suffer family problems and medical conditions. Is it any wonder they suffer from depression and are prone to suicides?"

Struggles and triumphs
For all its laudable qualities, the CPP has its share of problems.

"It's been a struggle," admits Ann. "The response has been a bit of a disappointment. We had expected a huge inflow after the radio programme and press reports during the launch of the CPP.

"I would say that we have not been very successful in creating awareness about the programme. Another problem could be the venue. Many of them who turned up had confidentiality issues; they weren't sure if their identity would be protected."

"We lacked proper publicity," adds Mubarak. "We put up posters at the Consulate as many Indians visit the place regularly. Now flyers are being prepared in many languages for distribution. I would agree the (programme's) potential has not been realised.

"The labourers need it the most, but ... I don't know how far it would be feasible to take counsellors to the camps, since most of them are young women. Then there is the language factor.

"But we do brief the labour camp bosses on our visits to the camps," he continues. "And it is also in their interest to see that their workers do not get bogged down by depression. So it may help."

The Indian Consul General has no doubts about the importance or the ultimate efficacy of the programme. "Judging by the number of cases and the fact that it was launched during summer and there was the Ramadan break in between, I would say it is good," says Sinha about the response.

"The feedback I have received is that it has been useful and I must thank the volunteers for this. As long as we have volunteers, the programme will continue."

While being organised and run by volunteers (even the Consulate staff are not duty-bound to participate) has its advantages (such as keeping red tape to the minimum), its independent nature might be the very thing that's preventing the CPP from becoming a huge success.

With minimal funds and no formal infrastructure or even an office, chances of expanding the CPP from the present single three-hour session a week appear slim.

"I somehow feel it is our inability to get across to all sections of society," says Ann.

"From our side we are willing to do what we can, but we can't get the people to come in too. The Consulate should take a strong stand. I feel a better outreach programme is necessary," she continues.

"If the Consulate took up this issue as seriously as it does some of its other programmes, it should work. Their intentions are very good, but have we worked to fulfil them?

"Being a school counsellor, I know how it works," she explains. "It takes time for parents to notice you. In the beginning, two or three will come (for consultations). Later, by word of mouth, the trickle begins. The important thing is to be there when they turn up."

Which is the reason Ann feels a full-time office with perhaps a counsellor would work much better. "Ideally, a full-time programme would be wonderful," she says.

Joseph Bobby feels that the CPP is on the right path and only requires some fine-tuning. "Reaching out to the labour class should be a priority," he says.

"There should also be an effort to build some infrastructure to enable them to feel more relaxed. Maybe by setting up parks or recreational facilities near the labour camps, such as in Sonapur, would give some relief to these depressed souls."

Entertainment and education programmes for the labourers would go a long way in alleviating their situation, he feels. "You won't find a single labour camp that does not have at least one person who is a graduate," he says.

"We could hold computer classes for them to give them a chance of improving their lives. Or some programme to provide them with entertainment or teach them the basics of handling their finances ..."

That perhaps is the reason the programme has not elicited the response it deserves. But the volunteers are sparing no efforts to see that they succeed. The counsellors are even using their personal contacts to ensure their patients get proper treatment.

"We refer our difficult cases requiring medical treatment to hospitals and psychiatrists we know," says Shailaja.

"Dr Amer Saadeddin, psychiatrist at the Dubai Community Health Center, always accepts our patients. The really needy are treated free of charge. They are not charged even for the medication. He has not rejected even one of our cases," she adds.

"We managed to admit certain cases, who we felt required long-term treatment, in hospitals in India," says Shailaja. The Consulate too helps out with its shelter home where patients can be put up for short periods before repatriation.

"The challenge now is in creating awareness," Shailaja opines. "That can swing the balance."

Yash Sinha puts things in perspective when he says, "It is an experiment and I hope it succeeds. Even if one person benefits, it would have been worth it."

By Shiva Kumar Thekkepat, Staff Writer

By Shiva Kumar Thekkepat, Staff Writer