Stigma is a major roadblock to changing the attitudes and behaviors associated with mental health- Neerja Birla

Tanvi Jetly
Tanvi Jetly Sep 29 2017 - 7 min read
Stigma is a major roadblock to changing the attitudes and behaviors associated with mental health- Neerja Birla
Mental wellness is the need of the hour as we are surrounded by stress and faulty lifestyles. It’s time that the curtain of stigma is raised so that the focus can be shifted to the importance of mental health without the fear of being judged.

Mental wellness is something which decides our overall health and mindset. The changes are slow but people are awakening to the need of it in their lives as the schedules go tighter, leaving them with no time for themselves. In a conversation with Mrs Neerja Birla, Founder and Chairperson, Mpower Mind Matters, shares with us the importance of mental wellness in today’s time and the initiatives taken by her brand to boost up the steps to mental health.

  • Tell us about your brand Mpower.

Mpower which is an initiative of the Aditya Birla Education Trust has various facets to it, all working towards the same goal - to create a society free of stigma, where people with mental health concerns and their care givers are empowered to live a life of fulfilment, with support, acceptance and care.

Under the umbrella brand we have the Mpower Movement, which is a series of outreach campaigns and initiatives to spread awareness about the stigma around mental health, educating people about mental illness, trying to dispel myths around it and spreading the message that it’s okay for the mind to be unwell just as much as it is okay for the body to be unwell.

At Mpower Centre, which has a multi-disciplinary team, we provide specialized services for children and adolescents with more severe, complex and persistent disorders. Our team includes Child and Adolescent Psychiatrists, Social Workers, Clinical Psychologists, Community Health Workers, Child Psychotherapists, Occupational Therapists, Speech and Language Therapists, Special Educators, Educational Psychologists, as well as Art, Music and Drama Therapists.

We also have the Mpower Foundation, Here, any individual, regardless of socio-economic status, gender, disability, age, religion, caste, or sexual orientation can benefit from our psychological and psychiatric services as we believe that every individual has the right to quality mental health care.

  • How important has mental wellness become in today’s scenario?

Our lives have become increasingly complex in today’s world. While progress and technology are making it easier for us to live and work, it’s also taking an unprecedented toll on our mental wellness. We’re always working, even after we leave office. We’re always stressed, and we live in a world where there’s a new stressor around the corner - traffic, the weather, physical health problems, family problems, etc. In such a world, it becomes very important for everyone to be aware of and take care of their mental wellness.

When we talk about mental health, people don’t often realize that there is often an underlying biological component. Environmental stressors may often interact with other factors such as genetic vulnerability, temperament, the brain’s ability to regulate mood, and this may manifest as an imbalance in neurotransmitters in the brain. People are not aware of this and tend to attribute mental illness to other factors, thus adding to the stigma. If people see it as that- an imbalance in the brain chemicals, that can be treated with medication- then they will be more open to seeking help.

I recently read about a company where an employee was encouraged when she wanted to take a 'mental wellness day', apart from her regular ‘sick days’. I think it reflects the right approach to mental health. It’s not just about seeking help when you have a mental health issue, but taking care of yourself to ensure a healthy state of mind in general.

  • What initiatives are you taking through your brand Mpower?

The Mpower Movement which proactively champions the mental health cause by creating awareness, advocating prevention and providing any service that we can for the cause. The Movement, with the help of support groups, is working towards the elimination of the stigma that surrounds mental illness. We have joined hands with Rotract to spread our message of ‘Mental Wellness for All’ in different communities. We have collaborated with the Tata Memorial hospital, where our psychologists run psychoeducational support groups for parents and caregivers whose children afflicted with cancer. The Mpower brand embodies our goal of creating awareness about mental wellness and removing the stigma attached to it. We do a lot of campaigning to drive that message, like Ride to Mpower that we do each year. We are planning more such activities that can increase our reach and spread our message far and wide. MHFA

  •  What views do you hold for the mental wellness sector in India?

Mental wellness is an issue that is not taken seriously enough in our country. As a society, stigma is a major roadblock to changing the attitudes and behaviours associated with mental health. Due to this, individuals often conceal their mental illnesses out of fear and shame, and unfortunately, do not speak up and access available services. Another factor that plays a role here is the lack of knowledge regarding mental health. There is a dire need to dispel these beliefs because they also act as impediments to seeking help.

I truly believe the most important thing to promote mental health in our country is to start a dialogue and get more people talking. When it comes to mental health, every system plays an important role-whether it’s the family, school or the local community and of course, society at large. The mission to change mindsets must be initiated at all levels. If we make mental illness an acceptable phenomenon, we can make great progress in the mental wellness of the people in our country.

  • Let us know more about the campaigns and the changes brought out through #StampOutStigma and #EverydayHeroes?

#StampOutStigma is an ongoing campaign that we consistently champion. The initiative of the movement is to alleviate the stigma that leads to societal discrimination of individuals with mental health issues and their families. It also urges influencers, media and medical professionals, community leaders, policy makers and educational institutes to encourage dialogue around this topic and to show compassion and responsibility towards people with mental health concerns.

#EverydayHeroes was launched to target the lack of open dialogue surrounding mental health in India. With this, we aim to reduce stigma by encouraging individuals to open up and share their inspiring stories. This campaign also works towards bringing the community together by shedding light on the prevalence of mental health concerns.

Through the various services that we offer at the Mpower Centre and the Foundation, we’ve been able to help over 584families.

  •  How has Mpower established a firm base against mental illness through its Centre and the foundation?

The Centre and the foundation both are working towards making mental health care accessible and acceptable. At the MPower Centre, we offer consultation to families and other practitioners. We have primary mental health workers, psychologists and counsellors, all working towards providing an effective model for the mental health of children and adolescents. We also hold regular workshops at the Centre for anyone who wants to learn, gain insights and be aware of mental wellness. And, at the MPower Foundation, we work with children, young adults, families, schools and communities and we provide them with services like assessments, therapies, psychiatric consultations, workshops and training. The basis of both the institutions is the belief in the right of every individual to high-quality mental health care. We want it to be available to anyone who seeks mental health care and anyone who needs it as well. With these two institutions in place, I believe that we are achieving that motive to a large extent.

  •  With Mpower supporting a good cause, what are your future expansion plans?

Mpower is a movement that should never stop growing. Every city and town in India should have accessible, affordable and quality mental health care. Hopefully, one day, every city, town, and village in India will have a Mpower! It has been little over a year of amazing work through Mpower and I am hopeful for the future.

Through our collaborations with various organizations, we are also seeing the need for quality care in all parts of the country. Currently, we are looking at expanding, perhaps to other cities in Maharashtra. We are also looking at opening new centres in other metros in India. 

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