Using the Radio to heal

BY rina mukherji| IN Media Practice | 20/06/2005
A radio programme for tsunami victims tries to motivate people to pick themselves up by the bootstraps, overcome their anxieties and pain, and take life head-on.

Rina Mukherji

Madhavi was bathing her two year old son when giant tidal waves swept them both out of their home. As she tried to run away from the foaming waters, her little son was swept away while she found herself dragged down into the sand. The fact that all this happened in a minute has so confused her that she refuses to accept reality, and her current status of a destitute bereft of all kith and kin.

She still thinks herself to be part of a small and happy family of three-her husband, her son and she. It is only sometimes that reality dawns, resulting in her superficial happiness giving way to uncontrollable sobs.

Bhaswati lost her in-laws, husband and two children when the waves swept her entire neighbourhood away. She is in such a state of shock that she hardly utters anything; otherwise, she is shedding copious tears for hours on end. She is so full of guilt for having failed to save her family that surviving the tsunami seems a punishment to her.

Helplessness, shock, disbelief, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder are some of the various manifestations of mental disorder common to survivors all over the Andaman and Nicobar islands in the aftermath of the tsunami.

The tsunami that hit the Islands in December ,2004, swept thousands away into the oceans. In spite of the dimensions of the disaster, the isles were spared any epidemic or too many physical illnesses. But mental disorders have been rife here.

The condition of those who were pregnant is absolutely pitiable. Pregnant Amita lost her husband, in-laws, nephews and nieces in the disaster. She was lucky to be thrown back on the shore by the killer waves to stay alive. Her home gone, her family lost, Amita has lost the will to survive. She gave up all food in a bid to kill herself and her unborn child. A lot of persuasion has gone into making her eat again. ? She is now under constant surveillance lest she harm herself or her child,? says gynaecologist Dr Udita Chatterjee.

Then, there are many like Gayatri who survived against heavy odds, clinging to whatever they could find. The tension and anxiety have so affected her that her son delivered last month was found to be affected by cerebral palsy. Two other children were found to be blue babies-one of whom died soon after. Given the fact that 0.7 per cent of the total population was pregnant on December 26, when the tsunami struck, chances are that many babies may be born disabled given the state the mothers have been in.

Realising the enormity of the problem once they got working in the camps and teamed up with the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurological Sciences (NIMHANS) to train volunteers in handling the mentally ill, the West Bengal Voluntary Health Association (WBVHA) thought of the radio to reach out to a wider cross-section of people.

? There were many tsunami victims who did not move to the camps at all. They continued to stay on near their dilapidated homes in makeshift shelters. This made it difficult to reach out to them,? explains psychologist Moushumi Kar.

To confound matters, most parts of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are just too far from the capital to be reached out easily. Most agencies even otherwise, found it difficult to cater adequately to the numerous cases in and around Port Blair, South Andaman and Nicobar . And that was the genesis of the trauma counselling programme undertaken by All India Radio (AIR) Port Blair station with WBVHA.

? We wrote to the AIR Port Blair station director, and he responded heartily to the idea.?The programme, in Hindi, titled ?Lehren? went on air in February 2005 and has been on ever since. The popularity of the 45-minute programme can be gauged from the fact that an average of 19 phone-in queries were received daily from the 37 inhabited islands it was heard on.

The generally twice-weekly programme enlightened listeners on the signs and symptoms of depression, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and how stressful situations such as a tsunami or earthquake involving the loss of loved ones can result in physical, emotional and behavioural situations that may ultimately result in a breakdown. It informed listeners on how to identify the early warning signs and symptoms of mental illness and imparted advice on how to deal with them. The basic import of the programme was not merely to advise and guide, but to motivate people to pick themselves up by the bootstraps, overcome their fears, anxieties and pain, and take life head-on. People were given tips on stress-busting techniques, alternatives to focus on and informed about yoga and meditation.

The programme proved so popular, that phone-ins by the following month not only included queries on mental illness, but information on cases symptomatic of disorder spotted in camps spread all over the islands. Even now, with camps having been disbanded and people having moved into temporary shelters, recorded episodes continue to be broadcast by the station.

In addition to the phone-in programme, AIR Port Blair station has also been making announcements in Tamil, Bengali, Hindi and Nicobari during prime time to inform people about where and how psychiatric help could be sought for affected persons in the vicinity of their respective homes..

What¿s more, it proved so informative to the uninitiated that people would ring up ? and tell us about certain mentally ill persons they had seen in certain areas, on the basis of the symptoms we had talked of,? says Moushumi Kar.

Currently, there has been a break in the live recordings, with WBVHA personnel gearing up for the next phase of the relief and rehabilitation work. But the popularity ratings of the programme are so high that older episodes are being broadcast to the audience.

It is just as well, since there are a lot more minds to heal.

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