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Colleges Can Prevent Students From Committing Suicide If They Only Paid Attention

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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?

Aqseer is a psychotherapist and the founder of a peer support initiative called Aaina Therapy based out of Delhi/NCR, and runs a free mental health chat room.

Image source: Arijit Sen/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
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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.

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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

  • Mobilising young people between the age of 18-35 to become ‘Eco-Period Champions’ by making the switch to a sustainable menstrual alternative and becoming advocates for the project
  • All existing and upcoming public institutions (pink toilets, washrooms, schools, colleges, government offices, government buildings) across East Delhi to have affordable provisions for sustainable menstrual product options

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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