Chandigarh-based Varundeep Chawla has always been a flagbearer for mental health. “Because I’ve been through it,” he says. So in his final year at Canada-based Humber College (Film and TV Production Programme), when he was presented with the opportunity to direct a short film and a Public Service Announcement (PSA) on a theme close to his heart, Chawla chose mental health. Inspired by work put in by Canada-based Maneet Chahal and Jasmeet Chagger, co-founders of SOCH (Support Our Community’s Health), Chawla’s PSA, also titled Soch, is a short narrative about a single Indian mother who does the best she can to take care of her daughter despite her own anxiety attacks. It has bagged him Best Canadian Student Short- Hollywood North Film Award 2019, Award of Merit (Student) – PSA at Accolade Global Film Competition 2019, California, a world premiere at IFFSA (International Film Festival of South Asia) Toronto 2019, the winner’s trophy at the PSA-Clatskanie Film Festival 2019, Oregon,and official selection at various festivals around the world.
It was while studying in Pune that Chawla experienced general anxiety and decided to reach out. “If going to the gym is not looked down upon, then why is going to a psychologist or psychiatrist for mental health,” says Chawla, at present based in Toronto, aiming to break the stigma against mental health through his work.
According to World Health Organisation, one among four teens in India, between the ages 13-15, suffers from depression. Suicide rate between ages 15-24 is alarming. As per the National Mental Health Survey 2015-16, less than 10 per cent sufferers consult a professional. “If we don’t act now, the country will head towards a mental health crisis,” says Simmi Waraich, a city-based psychologist.
Hectic lifestyles, nuclear families, social disconnect, low tolerance, and patience contribute to a disturbed mind space. “A lot of the issues begin during childhood: trauma, abuse, neglect, isolation, discrimination and poverty among others,” says Surjit Patheja, Director Principal Desh Bhagat Group of Universities, who also hosts the ‘Live Long, Live Happy’ on Desh Bhagat Radio.
Where rehab psychologist Sukhman Randhawa feels that “fake happy places like Facebook and Instagram put pressure to live up to a fake society”, The Mind Research Foundation’s counselling psychologist Mihul Narad believes that Indian population is still consumed by ignorance, stigma, and suppression of mental issues. “People think it’s a character weakness to come out with depression or anxiety, and so delay their treatment, which worsens their condition,” says Dr Priti Arun, professor and psychiatrist, Department of Psychiatry, Government Medical College and Hospital (GMCH), Chandigarh. She started a monthly session for parents of autistic children at GMCH to give them the confidence and courage that they are not alone. “For such a huge population, we have only 8,000-9,000 psychiatrists. There is a limited number of clinical psychologists and social workers who can deal with mental health. Unable to shoulder the burden alone, people abandon the mentally ill,” says Waraich. However, there are Crisis Resolution Teams and home-based treatment interventionists like NGO Parivartan in Chandigarh run in collaboration with GMCH, but not all over the country.
With World Mental Health Day (October 10) around the corner, like Chawla, the number of people committed to a change in the area of mental health is increasing. City-based techie, Abhay Singhal, has developed a telepsychology app called TickTalkTo, where one can easily chat and call a ‘happiness coach’ and therapist. An IIT graduate from Mumbai, Singhal was drawn to psychology while preparing for the civil services examination. Focused on helping people by merging technology and therapy, he relocated to Chandigarh from Gurgaon, and developed TickTalkTo, which has an active organic user base of 600 people a month. “While the happiness coach is a free service, therapy and psychometric tests are paid for. The serious cases in need of clinical help are referred further through proper channels,” says Singhal.
There is also Rangmanch by Viroka, which has three rules: You are allowed to scream, you are allowed to cry, but you are not allowed to give up. “It’s an open mic. You choose to speak, we choose to listen, in whichever way you wish — recite, enact, paint,” says its founder, city-based Kriti Pahuja. Her participants range from ages 14 to 73.
From art therapy to dance to reiki, Aashna Narula’s city-based coaching institute, Psychopedia teaches psychology to those between 16 and 30 years of age in innovative ways. “Students are struggling with
self-esteem issues, family issues, and peer pressure. Even the education system of the country is stressful. So we’ve created a place where they are loved, respected and heard,” says this young award-winning entrepreneur, who started the ‘Happiness Project’, which shuns the ‘log kya kahenge’ stigma.
The Mind Research Foundation was formed with a vision to contribute in the area of behavioural health by bringing about general mental health awareness and interventions in time and within reach for those affected. “Our aim is to give people tools that will enable them,” says its counselling psychologist, Mihul Narad.
Meditation is what Soul Grounding’s founder Honey Grewal finds as a powerful tool to overcome stress, anxiety, fatigue, improve concentration, sleep and confidence. “You can make money, eat organic food, but if you don’t have mental peace, none of it is going to help. Nourishment of the mind is primary,” says Grewal, who has worked with the Sab Tera Foundation, Fortis Hospital, and has tied up with the Poddar Foundation for work on mental health.
In Pune, Anvi Mehta’s The Happy Place Café has collaborated with psychologist Sarah Khan for ‘Letters to Sarah’, a concept close to the film Letters to Juliet. A letterbox has been put up at the cafe where people can come and drop their letters for Sarah, talking about their mental issues. On October 12-13 there will also be ‘The Pune Vibrancy Festival’ by the Center for Creative Transformation, a collective run by Niki Ray. The festival aims to promote a positive approach to inclusion, diversity and mental well-being using art and performance as therapeutic tools. Pushpanjali Trust’s Aditya Vikram Rametra is on a mission to push the government to frame a policy on group homes for the mentally ill. For someone who has seen his brother battle a serious mental illness for three decades, Rametra believes that severe mental illness cases need rehab specialists, psychiatrists and psychologists — an ecosystem to survive. He says that there is a need to earn livelihood beyond candle and bag making.