You don’t really understand your privilege when it comes to mental health until you’re in a room full of people who have worked hard over the last few years to make these services available to members of lower income, oppressed groups.
The Mariwala Health Initiative (MHI), a funding agency for innovative and inclusive mental health initiatives, brought together experts from different non-profit groups working towards furthering the discussion on mental health and psychosocial wellness for the launch of ReFrame, the first edition of a journal by MHI that focuses on changing conversations around mental health in India. The event, which took place on October 6, centered around the launch of the journal, covering topics such as the need for intersectionality in mental health discourse, while addressing the numerous ways in which current practices alienate large chunks of the population due to a varied range of biases and limitations.
In her opening statement, Rajvi Mariwala, Director of MHI, stressed on the importance of remembering that no person is a blank slate—that each person has a story to tell and a story that is yet to be written. She talked about the need to diversify mental health options so as to include members of lower income groups and vulnerable communities, to help break down the stigma and provide outlets to deal with judgement.
The event was an eye-opening experience on so many levels. A lot of us are often unaware of the privilege we have been born into. We have access to services that benefit us in the longer run, we surround ourselves with open-minded individuals who are happy to lend an ear, and a lot of times, we have support—both financial and emotional—from members of our family, both immediate and distant. Personally, it helped me understand the many opportunities I have been presented with that have helped me work towards improving my mental health. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for so many people I am lucky to share this city and country with.
In a time when at least one in four people suffers from a mental health ailment of some form, it’s crucial for organisations and healthcare providers to band together to support those who come from vulnerable communities, and conscientiously offer care and a means to overcome their troubles with innovative and inclusive mental and psychosocial health care practices.
Among the speakers at the event was Tanuja Babre, a counselling psychologist by training and the Programme Coordinator for iCALL (Pan India), a psychological helpline developed as a field action project by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. iCALL, developed with the goal of providing immediate, anonymous, and professional counselling services to anyone in need of emotional assistance, establishes partnerships with various organisations to develop protocols, offer services, and organise workshops in the area of mental health. Tanuja stressed on the importance of shifting perspectives on mental health from that of it as an illness to developing and maintaining psychosocial well-being. iCALL works on destigmatizing mental health and the narrative surrounding it through the use of sensitive and unspecific terms. With services in multiple regional languages, iCALL helps bridge the gap between good and important mental health services and vulnerable communities, who don’t have the physical or financial ability to access care from mental health professionals who mostly have offices set up in metropolitan cities. Tanuja highlighted the importance of remembering how one uses language as a tool, and encouraged using it to empower people to remember that they are bigger than their illness.
The same point was driven home by Deepa Pawar, the Founder and Director of Anubhuti Trust (Maharashtra), a non-profit organization led by women who have fought caste, class, gender, language and ethnicity based discriminations to develop systems for change. According to Deepa, existing and widespread mental health terminology and language makes it harder to establish connections with the communities Anubhuti hopes to help. In an effort to promote youth leadership, Anubhuti Trust reaches out to members of the younger generation across a range of sectors, including schools, colleges, and political parties.
Deepa pointed out that members of the LGBTQIA+ communities within these lower income circles are further oppressed than those in middle and upper middle-class groups. Vulnerable communities have limited understanding about the changing dialogue surrounding gender and sexuality, and they often learn from the restricted perspective they have and have grown up with over the years. To help educate these communities, they developed language and materials that connect the people to a broad understanding of mental health and wellness. Deepa also stressed on the importance of including the community in their own discussions and development of mental health tools.
Kavita Nair of Bapu Trust (Pune) also shone a light on the prevalence of this stigmatization and alienation. She discussed how human beings as individuals are layered by labels and behaviours decided by the self or by society, and it’s the same layers that society attempts to take away to leave behind an empty shell. It’s heart-wrenching to know that folks in vulnerable communities are often sent to mental health institutions if they are ever brave enough to speak out about their mental health struggles. The team at Bapu Trust highlights the important of listening to the needs sufferers and the need to limit/eliminate assumptions and just listen. Kavita also talked about the huge role family, affection, care, and understanding play in the journey towards recovery, as opposed to reliving the pain and returning home with the trauma of being dumped in a mental health institution.
Jasmine Kalha, a Program Manager and Research Fellow at Centre for Mental Health Law & Policy (CMHLP) of the Indian Law Society, Pune added to this discourse by stating the importance of including stakeholders in mental health discussions. For her, people who have lived these experiences are the experts on their mental health, a belief that MHI also follows. It is mportant to center counter-discussions with other stakeholders in mental health initiatives such as users and researchers to understand perspectives from beyond the point of view of healthcare providers so as to make the healing process less clinical and more personal. Through her work with The Atmiyata Project (Mehsana, Gujarat), a CMHLP initiative to help protect and promote the rights of people with mental health, she works to train community facilitators, known as ‘Atmiyata Champions’ and ‘Mitras’ to develop a mental health narrative in a real and relatable way. These facilitators are taught to navigate challenges during field work, and create awareness about mental health in their communities in sensitive and comprehensible ways.
All these initiatives, while working in different areas and on different platforms, strive to work on building a better base for mental health awareness and treatment all over India, and not just in metropolitan cities. Their work and efforts help bridge a gap that most of us are usually unaware of in the realm of mental health, and orchestrate conversations that need to be had in communities that need all the assistance they can get.
If you or someone you know is in need of emotional support, please contact iCALL at 022-25521111, or visit their website at http://icallhelpline.org/.
If you’d like to help out with community outreach, or learn more about the Mariwala Health Initiative, email contact[at]mariwalahealthinitiative[dot]org or visit mhi.org.in.