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Mental Health Warriors: When ‘Disability’ Is a Life Sentence

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By Sweta Mantrii:

What happens when a differently-abled person has a mental illness? Often the answer is it goes untreated with long, silent suffering— with little or no hope in sight.

Sweta Mantrii, 31, has spina bifida by birth and walks with the help of a caliper and crutches. This Pune-based writer is a disability rights activist. She’s currently having a gala time as she attempts to address the understanding of disability and the disability of understanding through standup comedy.

No flowery introduction. No grand opening lines. I’ll cut to the chase and come straight to the point. There is more to disability than the physical aspect of it. What happens when a person is living with a disability that affects their mobility? Have you ever thought beyond the physical challenges that come with a disability?

I’ve been differently-abled since birth. If you saw me growing up, you’d say that I was having a pretty happy and ‘normal’ childhood. I was a pampered child and got what I wanted, as my parents tried to compensate for something that was missing – the ability to walk ‘normally’. They enrolled me in a school for ‘normal’ children, they took me to family gatherings, to parks, movies etc. They did their best to ensure that I didn’t feel left out. I didn’t. I had a few friends. But despite everything, I grew up being labelled as the child who was not ‘normal’ and hence was treated differently.

I used to be the enthu cutlet in school who would want to join the other kids during the PT sessions on the ground but was given the option of staying back in class. Because of the attitude of a few near and dear ones, I was eventually conditioned into believing that marriage isn’t for me and I spent most of my life believing that men would never like me. When I wanted to take up a job in a different city after my MBA, I was told to give it up and even consider working from home. In the recent past, someone even went on to point out that it is unfortunate that my parents would never know what it feels to have their daughter make chai for them every morning! (I make better chai than my mom, by the way). Yes, when you’re a woman living with a disability, you have to battle the double-edged sword of ableism and patriarchy.

When you’re a person living with a disability, you not only deal with the limitations of your own body and limitations of the infrastructure, but you also deal with the limitations of other people’s attitude. It impacts you in ways that you don’t realise immediately. Living with a disability leaves you with immense self-doubt, less or almost no confidence, and in a bad mental space. You’re always made to feel that you just aren’t good enough. It triggers a chain of psychological reactions that you can’t articulate. This is where I feel therapy can play a crucial role in helping the person cope with it. But how does a person with a mobility-affecting-disability access therapy?

I took therapy for the first time in 2016. I walk with crutches, so I have learned to navigate my way through the inaccessible infrastructure; not to forget that an inaccessible infrastructure is a reflection of the indifferent attitude of the society. Choosing a therapist didn’t depend on their rating on any website, but on how accessible space was. However, the slippery surfaces and steps without railings made it even tougher in the monsoons, and I had to discontinue therapy. After going through another tough phase in my life, I resumed therapy again this year and could continue it for a good four months only because it was ‘online’ therapy and I didn’t have to worry about getting anywhere without tripping.

I am so grateful to my therapist and care manager at Mind Piper who helped me understand the larger narrative of my life and disentangle my emotional mess. It’s heartening to see more social enterprises offering people-centric online mental health services. If not for online therapy, I would have been stuck in the same space. I can’t even begin to imagine how someone on a wheelchair or a visual impairment can think of availing therapy with the given infrastructure!

You’d think that people with disabilities are strong. Yes, we’re strong because we have the ability to live in a world that’s not designed for us. But sometimes, strong people could do with some empathy now and then. Could we take baby steps towards having a barrier-free and inclusive environment? Not going to therapy, could not only lead to having a drastic impact on the person with mental illness but also on those around them. It could also result in passing on toxic behaviour to the next generation.

If hospitals can be accessible (not all of them are), then why can’t spaces of mental health? Can we stop glorifying differently-abled people as objects of inspiration and take efforts to be inclusive? We’re not asking for a favour; accessibility is our right. We deserve it.

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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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