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NewsJul 29, 2021

Bringing ‘psychological first aid’ to Covid caregivers

Assistant Professor Dr. Uma Chandrika Millner co-created a program to provide free mental health support for frontline workers in India and Nepal

Uma Millner on Zoom call
Assistant Professor Uma Chandrika Millner, top right in Zoom window, co-created a website to provide support for frontline workers treating Covid in India and Nepal.

In April 2021, as the Covid-19 pandemic swept across India, healthcare workers struggled to keep up with the staggering number of patients.  

“People were dying at extraordinary rates, not just because they had Covid, but because there was no oxygen. No beds. Doctors had to make decisions about who to save,” says Assistant Professor Uma Chandrika Millner

Dr. Radhika Bapat, a clinical psychologist in Pune and Dr. Millner’s dear friend of 21 years, was offering trauma support to her peers but observed that more support was needed. Toward the end of April, Millner and Bapat began brainstorming ways to reach a larger population. 

By the first week of May, Millner and Bapat had launched a website, the Indian Network of the Diaspora for Essential Aid and Relief (INDEAR). They gathered hundreds of volunteers to provide psychological first aid to frontline workers in India and Nepal.  

Faculty Uma Millner
Assistant Professor Uma Chandrika Millner is helping Covid caregivers in India and Nepal.

Millner and her two research assistants, Lesley students Allison De Cristo ’22 and Jasmine Xifan Wu ’21, started out by seeking volunteers on social media. De Cristo created a flyer, which Millner then posted on her Facebook page and that of the Division of South Asian Americans of the American Psychological Association. 

“It was a Tuesday when we put up the flyer. By Thursday, we had over 200 people sign up,” says Millner. “People were eager to help in any way they could.” By Tuesday, May 4, just one week after sharing the flyer, they had 700 volunteers on board from all over the world, most of them from the South Asian diaspora. Not everyone stayed on, but over 500 volunteers remained with the organization.  

Working around each counselor’s schedule proved to be a challenge, especially when scheduling so many volunteers in different time zones and speaking many different Indian languages. As volunteers flooded in, Wu created a webpage to get the program up and running. Millner contacted a friend who works in tech to assist with implementing an online appointment scheduling process. 

Millner and Bapat were determined, however, to overcome this obstacle and make the INDEAR scheduling system easy to navigate. 

“I didn’t want the frontline workers to have to put in any more effort than they needed to. All they should do is click a button and be connected,” says Millner.  

The organization now has many different pockets, such as a core coordinators team, a marketing team and a training and collaborations team, all volunteers. They have also begun partnering with other organizations in India to offer training and support.  

While doctors were the primary inspiration for the creation of this service, INDEAR has ended up serving many others as well, including medical staff, mental health professionals, suicide helpline/hotline workers, psychiatrists and more.  

INDEAR has also become a service for more than just psychological first aid and listening circles. The organization provides training on psychological first aid, grief, secondary trauma and burnout, and de-escalation training to help protect healthcare workers, who experienced remarkably high rates of assault during the surge.

INDEAR recently collaborated with the Indian Orthopaedic Association on a panel presentation on violence against doctors in India.   

Although the Covid-19 surge in India has since declined, Millner still believes the service can be helpful and is open to see what folks’ future needs are. 

“We started out with the intent to provide psychological first aid to healthcare workers,” says Millner. “But the way it’s evolving is really to focus on helping people in India, supporting mental health, and contributing to their efficacy. We may not be needed at all in a few months, and that would be a good thing.” 

To learn more about INDEAR and Millner’s contributions, check out the following article published in Forbes