In 2014, when I was getting bored out of my mind studying a fascinating but entirely theoretical course, I decided to start what would later become ‘Aaina’. How I got to an MA in Psychology after studying law is a classic tale of disillusionment and not knowing who I was, and I’ve written a whole article about it here.
Suffice to say that going to the best law school in the country means nothing when you’re in an alien environment, faced with the reality of the development sector and your twisted attachment to big city life.
Anyway, as a group of us batchmates sat around cooking up a vision for preventive mental health care, a friend suggested looking into peer-support groups.
As the name indicates, this is a group of peers that try to support each other through sharing sessions/circles. In time, this would become Aaina’s USP, in a crowded industry that is over-focused on cure and not adequately on prevention and early intervention.
The idea is simple. This world values talking, hard-selling, small talk and a firm handshake; not listening, authenticity, and vulnerability. But with the entire world talking, practising their smiles and opening lines, who is left to listen?
Universities today are becoming increasingly cut-throat spaces, where presentation is valued over genuine expression and creativity, winning and achievement over learning and growth. Students often find themselves scrambling to build stoic masks to deal with constant microaggressions and inclusion and exclusion based on how well they conform.
College is a place where identities are in a constant state of flux, a student has most probably just left their familiar home environment to move to a new city and is exposed to a new culture, very diverse groups of people with a multitude of opinions and differing life experiences. During this transition period, it becomes even harder to cope with the external pressures that college poses when people are only talking at each other and not to each other. It intensifies feelings of alienation and low self-worth, eventually leading to substance abuse and mental breakdowns.
At and through Aaina, I teach people how to listen to each other so that fewer people land up in the hospital, needing a tranquilliser because the world could not value what they had to offer. I do not want to hear of one more suicide or meet one more college student who has been looking for a therapist for three months.
Listen. We have a mental health epidemic in this country and relying on professionals to sort this out is shortsighted and naive. Demand far outweighs supply and let’s be real – mental health care is expensive. As a professional, I deserve to get paid for offering a challenging service. But most people cannot afford me.
Solution? Teach people to listen to each other, so they don’t get to the point where the professionals need to come in.
But it’s more than that. We need to do more than tell people what the six symptoms of anxiety are, or what depression looks like, and encourage them to sit and share their life stories with each other twice a month.
It’s not enough to prevent mental illness. We need to build cultures of empathy. Because the schism or the fracture underlying this scape-quake is the mind-body dualism that Enlightenment has forced on all of us via the immense power of capitalism.
Don’t be shaken by the big seeming words I just used. The point is that Ayurveda and other ‘alternative’ views of the human-in-it’s-habitat see mind, body, soul as linked. They even talk of astral bodies and energy bodies.
It is Western medicine that is obsessed with compartmentalising and isolating, exaggerating polarities instead of managing them. It is useful to parse a behaviour into a sequence of thought, feeling and action – but the consequence cannot be an over-emphasis on thought and rationality.
Yet that’s what happened to all of us. We became so preoccupied with predictability and control that we forgot that the body is more than a vehicle for the brain. Now we’re all in our heads all the time, making ourselves mentally ill because we have collectively forgotten what feeling, emotional expression and mind-body connectedness looks like.
This is why the work needs to be on the level of culture. So that the body, the feminine, feeling, nurturing, emotion, empathy can all be welcomed back into our campuses, our hearts, heads, and our lives. We need to recognise that we are at our core, emotional beings with the capacity to reason and not the other way round. No matter how hard we try to suppress our emotions, it is going to catch up with us. It is necessary that this basic awareness of how to be in touch with the body – our own and each other’s, does not get corroded by the hegemonic overvaluation of objectivity.
College administrations should recognise that higher education is not merely a milestone to be crossed in one’s life but a significant formative experience that paves the way for a healthy, constructive adulthood. They need to mull over whether they want the campus to be an emotionally sensitive environment conducive to questioning and exploring one’s values and the role one plays in society or merely churn out automatons heading towards the inevitable burnout.
Universities are full of talented individuals with immense potential that would be a shame to have squandered away because of the administration’s failure to respond to the declining mental health of students. This is not about finding fault. It is about embracing responsibility and being vigilant – because waking up after a suicide is not waking up at all.
If college administrations could really see this and exercise some foresight, I would build an ever-growing group of student listeners trained to train others. They would create a cosy corner on every campus in this country, with cushions, board games, a kettle and people willing to just listen.
Building a culture of empathy on campus means creating space for people to be vulnerable, authentic and sensitive – both inside and outside the classroom. So that the next lonely first-year student who wants some comfort does not have to seek it in marijuana, binge drinking or a co-dependent relationship.
Of course college is fun because we get to play adults. I just wish there was space for wholesome interaction in addition to all the partying. Late night terrace drinking sessions should be supplemented with daytime hot chocolate drinking and unburdening. Now wouldn’t that be lovely?