YourDOST: A Counselling Website That Strives To Break The Stigma Of Mental Illness

YourDOST: A Counselling Website That Strives To Break The Stigma Of Mental Illness

One of every five Indians suffers from a mental disorder according to a study conducted by the Government of India. 36 percent of our population suffers from depression, according to a World Health Organisation report, that’s close to 50 million people, a tremendous amount of individuals who are mostly suffering in silence due to stigma and shame attached to mental illness in Indian society. Lack of psychiatric and emotional support further alienate people who are suffering from high levels of stress and anxiety, which unchecked can even drive a person to emotional instability and suicide. The statistics are astounding, and yet our culture calls for a shunning of mental illness and silencing of any dialogue about illnesses and disorders that in several situations is out of a persons control.

“When I was at IIT Guwahati, my hostel-mate committed suicide due to anticipation of bad placement. None of us had any clue of her suffering before she took the drastic step. I strongly felt that it could have been avoided had she sought some help. That is when I realised that even though we had counsellors and psychologists on the campus, hardly anyone sought their support,” says Richa Singh, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of YourDOST, an online platform providing people with convenient and anonymous access to psychiatric and psychological experts, life coaches and a listening ear, be it for depression, anxiety or emotional stress after a bad break up. Unfortunately, this isn’t a singular case, but something we hear about regularly across the country. India has one of the world’s highest rates of suicide of people aged 15 to 29. A cloud of shame and fear in seeking help continues to loom over Indian youth, many of whom have still grown up hearing that such people are ‘crazy.’

What Richa learnt from the experience is that a lot of people around her were experiencing high stress due to job pressures and relationship issues. ‘Most of these people were not willing to talk about their problems fearing the social implications and for fear of being calling mentally ill,” she said. Brainstorming with Co-Founder Puneet Manuja, the two conceptualised s safe space where people can anonymously seek support. “I shared the idea with Satyajeet Nandekar, my other Co-Founder, and he loved it. I vividly remember the day I discussed the concept of YourDOST with him, and within 24 hours he was working on the coding to make it work. That was December 2014, the idea shaped up into a technological product—

As more and more people like Richa and her team publically start a discussion regarding different psychological ailments and change the preconceived notions that people have continued to hold onto, people have overtime began to warm up to the conversation. Asking her if she thinks Indian society has opened up to talking about mental illness Richa commented, “Sadly, no; especially among the older generations where the topic of mental illness was discussed behind closed doors and kept quiet from relatives as well as neighbours. Talking about it was considered a big taboo as these things were considered a stigma in ‘respectable households.’ Society for a long time didn’t acknowledge the fact that mental problems don’t equate with madness and insanity. The failure of such a recognition led to the creation of an even bigger taboo in seeking counselling and medical support to treat mental illness...Also, communicating feelings of vulnerability is considered a weakness, more so among men.”

User testimonials, via YourDost

“About 36 % of Indians are suffering from depression according to WHO which is an alarming number. An estimated 51% of corporate India suffers from high levels of stress. And yet, we are not open to talking about it,’ says Richa. “Fortunately, things are changing for the better. The modern, urban Indian society is opening up to the idea of high stress, depression, anxiety issues. Also, celebrities like Deepika Padukone and Honey Singh opening up about their battles with depression and bipolar disorder is encouraging many people to open up about their problems as well,’ she adds. YourDOST has a panel of qualified psychologists, life coaches and life coaches users can contact at any time of the day. “All of them are brought on the panel after a number of stringent tests. We ensure that our users have all this information when they come to our website. Additionally, they can also see the number of conversations these experts have handled till date—all these factors help in building trust between our users and experts.

But, how comfortable are people really talking to complete strangers online? According to Richa, YourDOST have users who belong to two sets—those who feel anxious about talking to strangers online, and those who feel a lot more comfortable than they would speaking to a known person. There is a kind of safety and detachment that anonymity allows, and a lack of judgement when speaking to a person who doesn’t know who you are, where you’re from and your circumstances. “We’ve had users writing in to us saying they feel more comfortable talking to our experts, and especially online, because it helps them stay anonymous, they can share their deepest secrets and biggest problems without fear of being judged. Plus, it can be done right from the comfort of their homes—it’s very convenient,” says Richa. “In my opinion, anonymity and easy access to qualified experts makes it easier for many people to open up. Also, this platform gives them a chance to open up to people who don’t come with any preconceived notions and prejudices.”

Treating ailments such as depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder involves a lot more than telling a person to ‘cheer up!’ and ‘get over it.’ As Richa points out, society at large needs to realise that such issues need to be dealt with as much seriousness as one would handle diabetes. “People need to understand the seriousness of certain mental illnesses, and how it can affect the ability of a person to see the joy in life—they cannot just ‘snap out of it.’ With proper therapy sessions, medication, if need be, as well as family support, these illnesses can be treated and managed, allowing the person to get back to living a happy and satisfied life.’

The biggest challenge according to Richa has been not having an educational background in the field of Psychology, but both Puneet and her got a lot of help from the psychologists they approached for advice. “We started asking them about their cases—which of course they shared very briefly because of confidentiality—and would write blogs about it. I was fascinated by how helpful and forward they were.” They began with a small team of two-three people and an approximated 300 users back in December 2014. Today, Richa tells us that YourDOST is a 20-person team with over 250 experts serving more than 2.5 lakh users. “It’s all thanks to the wonderful reception our idea has gotten from people at large,” she says. “People are ready to help—it’s more a matter of reaching out to them.”

Image source: YourDost

What advice would you give to someone who’s afraid of seeking help for their problems? On the other hand, what would you say to a person who, for lack of a better word, shames people for having a mental illness?

“To people afraid to seek help—i would like to tell you that it is perfectly okay and it’s human to be vulnerable. We all have been there at some point in our lives and know how difficult it can be. From my experience, I can assure you that expressing our emotions helps a lot more than we know. Please talk out your concerns to a trusted friend or a relative; write out your thoughts in a diary if you can. It if is not feasible, there are many friends here for you on YourDOST—we understand, and we care about you.

To people who shame others in need of help—Depression and other mental illnesses are serious concerns—they tremendously affect, modify and mould a perfects attitude towards life. Mental illness, if not treated in time, can make people take the extreme step of suicide. Is there is someone you know who is in need of help, please encourage him/her to talk it out with a trusted friend. You might save or definitely add value to another person’s life—-and that is the noblest deed you can do for another person.”

Disclaimer: People often don’t seek professional help when they need it the most. Asking for help is not something you or anyone should be embarrassed or ashamed about. If you or someone you know is in a state of distress please seek out a professional, you can visit the YourDOST website, call the Vandrevala Foundation helpline - 1 860 266 2345 (24x7), and Aasra’s 24x7 helpline - +91 22 2754 6669, or better yet, get in touch with your nearest doctor.

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