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Why Every Day Should Be World Mental Health Day

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This story is a part of Youth Ki Awaaz’s weekly topic #WorldMentalHealthDay to create a conversation about mental health in India. Share your personal stories of coping with a mental illness, trying to access mental healthcare or any experience with mental health here.

Since 1992, October 10 has come to be observed and celebrated as World Mental Health Day. It is primarily a day to educate, raise awareness, and eradicate stigma, although we need to do much more. Although the Mental Healthcare Act, 2017 was approved just a few months ago to rousing applause, most of the country’s institutions still have colonial and draconian practices where human rights and dignity are just words to be disregarded.

Indeed, even though India is a signatory to the UN CRPD (the UN’s Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities), it continues to flout many of its articles, particularly when it comes to the capacity of persons with mental illness or living independently in the community, articles 12, 16 and 19.

Today, I will not speak of Erwadi where 28 inmates of a faith-based asylum who were chained to their beds died in a fire in 2001, charred to death. I will not speak of the many atrocities that continue to this day, under the guise of well-meaning doctors or familial caregivers. I will not mention Behrampur, where just last year, another psychiatric hospital had naked inmates eating off the floor.

Today, I want to write of mental distress being looked at differently. Can’t we see that mental distress is simply unease at living in a hostile world? Often a reaction to abuse or sexual trauma? Would it not be more abnormal to be subjected to trauma and not have a reaction? In most cases, mental distress can be looked upon as a temporary altered state, which given time, treatment, therapy and attention, will self-correct, like most illnesses do.

Treatment can include psychotherapy, arts-based therapy, faith healing, medication, yoga, bodywork, and more. Of course, the most powerful healing tool we have in our hands is to stop or get away from the situation causing distress, or to be able to change it somehow — so in the case of an abusive relationship, leave, or in case of stress at work, be able to be mindful about how much your body and mind can take, and make the requisite changes.

In India, unfortunately, as it is with most of the world, the lens with which we view mental illness (even the word illness denoting something is wrong) is the biomedical lens and only one view of “normal”. Who decides what is normal and what an aberration is? And what of the stigma once you are labelled? Everyone who has been through the system – and even those who have not – know that stigma can often be more damaging than the condition itself.

A more socially and politically accepted term which is now preferred by a lot of us working in the mental health advocacy space is ‘psychosocial disability’, which denotes the source of the pain. In addition, by taking mental distress out of the realm of “illness” and doctors, we are able to be more compassionate and have empathy, which again will cause less stigma.

Furthermore, the biomedical approach wants you to focus on the chemical imbalance in the brain and the use of psychopharmacology to address these. The use of SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), which among them has the bestselling antidepressant, Prozac, although beneficial does not come without side effects, something that doctors and psychiatrists often fail to mention while prescribing.

For sure, just like when there is heart disease, liver disease or diseases of other parts of the body, there are changes in the brain. But any good doctor could first prescribe lifestyle changes, therapy, exercise, and then try more aggressive treatment, perhaps drugs. Just as you can get your cholesterol under check by changing your diet and exercise routine, so can you look at issues with the brain, using lifestyle changes to get better. But because of the politics of money and the power of Big Pharma, most doctors prescribe drugs as the first line of treatment. One of the possible solutions is more consumer awareness, more discussion about enabling choices, and changing the power equation, i.e., taking away the power of the white coat and the power of the psychiatrist.

In addition, a big misconception is the feeling people have that once they have a mental health condition, they can’t get better. This is perhaps a combination of looking at mental health treatment (the very word treatment implies medicine!) through the predominant biomedical model and the huge power imbalance when it comes to psychiatry. Asylums are a very colonial hangover and they continue to be run in silos. Even though the laws have changed on the outside, inside asylums – sorry, they prefer to be called psychiatric hospitals – archaic and draconian practices are still common. Patients are still shackled and nurses carry batons without being afraid to use them.

My Advice To Those Grappling With Poor Mental Health:

Become your own best source of information. Do not blindly believe what is told to you by doctors. And know that you have the power to choose. Take charge of your health, start with the body – use nutrition, exercise, massage, and start listening to the body. The mind will follow. And realise that poor mental health is poor health. Look at the entire body with the head as just one part, and work on it holistically.

To conclude, my message is simple. Just as physical health can affect anyone and no one is immune, mental health is for everyone. It affects us all, some more than others. It is when these changes or distress impacts your functioning that people start noticing something is wrong and may seek help. But be in physical or mental, the bottom line is health. And distress in either will cause illness and disease (dis-ease).

Take charge of your health, use common sense and lifestyle modifications to start, become more aware of your choices. This World Mental Health Day, I urge you to become more aware of mental illness, of the rising numbers, of the frightening fact that it is closer to you than you realise. Stop judging people because of their labels. And embrace all shades of “normal”.

We have also come together with Suchita Bhhatia, a Mumbai based filmmaker to help create some short films which will bring awareness to this cause, to let you see how mental health issues are invisible illnesses, just because they do not seem visible like a broken leg, it does not mean they affect the person less. These films also aim to show you how mental health issues do not discriminate and how everyone is at risk. These films came about when a member of Suchita’s family was diagnosed with a mental health issue. She says that the event defined our lives and turned it upside down. The links to these films is here although we are in the process of creating a walk-in exhibition soon.

Disclaimer: The author does not discount serious mental health conditions like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and others but urges you to look at another way to see how they originated. By looking at their source, addressing trauma, there could be other ways of healing that are more holistic and permanent.

Jhilmil Breckenridge is a poet, writer and the Founder of Bhor Foundation, a mental health charity which is involved in advocacy, working against stigma and using poetry as therapy.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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