World Mental Health Day: Nurturing ‘Safe Spaces’ Within The Mental Health Discourse

TW: The article addresses suicide.

World Suicide Prevention Day is hosted by the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP), every year on September 10 to raise awareness on suicide and its prevention. The theme ‘Working Together to Prevent Suicide’, which continues from last year, seeks to integrate a wider network of people towards a more comprehensive approach to tackle this challenge globally. “Despite progress, one person still dies every 40 seconds from suicide,” said World Health Organisation (WHO) Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyeus. The WHO, which extends sponsorship to this cause by including suicide prevention in the Sustainable Development Goals 3, has initiated a thematic measure this year called ‘A Day for 40 Seconds of Action’. This theme aims to go on until October 10 which is observed as World Mental Health Day. It plans to encourage people to dedicate at least 40 seconds of their day to listen, share, talk on or talk to people on suicide prevention. Apart from engaging people pro-actively in suicide prevention activities, it also sends out the underlying message that suicide is a largely preventable problem and that mental health is a key factor to combat this social malaise.

There are many civil body organisations, individual actors, religious bodies, and institutions that work to sensitise and give information on suicide prevention. Helplines can also be very important in suicide prevention. Unfortunately, India does not have any such national or regional level hotline number as a part of a state initiative. Although a few helpline numbers exist, run by civil bodies but most of them are urban-based and their efficiency is questionable. A recent study conducted by Times of India revealed that most calls to helpline numbers remained unanswered, and most numbers were not even working.

In India, one person every 4 minutes dies by suicide, with the highest belonging to the 15-29 age group. According to WHO, India has the highest suicide ratio in South-east Asia and the third-highest in the world. Around 3000 people die every day of suicide. The reasons can range from economic issues like unemployment, to agro-climatic causes like drought, flood, crop failure, or political reasons like withdrawal of subsidies to farmers by government, and social reasons like fall in public reputation, illness (including cancer, AIDS, paralysis), failure in examination or business, drug abuse, love affairs, property dispute, dowry-related, bullying, infertility, divorce or the death of a loved one. The social media ‘revolution’ also has been responsible in certain cases like those induced by the Blue Whale challenge recently, which led to a spate of suicides among many youths who played the game online.

Given India’s statistics and causes for suicides, it is crucial to initiate effective mechanisms to bring down suicide rates. To add to the complexity, the diversity of India’s demography, culture and social institutions like caste can also be challenging. The recent incident of a doctor from a Dalit community in Mumbai who died by suicide due to alleged caste discrimination in her medical fraternity goes to prove that even in one of the most scientific and revered professions in India, the intersectionality of caste, gender and power can be an important catalyst for suicide. Although education is important, it is topped by awareness and empathy as effective mechanisms along with sensitive state initiatives to address this public health problem.

The new Mental Health Care Act, 2017 has de-criminalised suicide in India. It has also proposed several responsibilities by the government like providing care, treatment, and rehabilitation so as to reduce the recurrence of future attempts. One-stop centres or crisis intervention centres must be set up with trained professionals dedicated to suicide prevention. Suicide Prevention Hotlines offering emotional counseling and psychiatric intervention, especially in regional languages, should come up in order to support the large section of people in rural areas who figure very high on the suicide statistics but have close to no support system in their reach.

Youth between 15-34 are the biggest suicide risk group in India as they struggle with stress, bullying, peer pressure, poor relationships, failure and image issues. Sensitisation and awareness programs should be made compulsory in schools and colleges to break the taboo, myth, and stigma of suicide.

Be it online or offline, the idea of ‘safe spaces’ should be of prime importance, where confidentiality and empathetic listening would go a long way. An increase in the conversation of mental health and suicide prevention is the need of the hour to reduce the stigma associated with it in order to fight the good fight.

Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program

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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 Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’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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