What I Learnt At Gujarat’s First Mental Health Festival

In an origami session at The Yellow Umbrella, I found myself so engaged in making a swan, that I forgot all about my work-related apprehension. Had someone mentioned this as a remedy to anxiety, the cynic in me would have disregarded and called it child’s play. But, given the energy that was infused in the environment of this festival, I gave it a shot. My swan was a crumpled ball of paper, and so was my anxiety, at the end of the session. Child’s play managed to challenge the cynic in me. 

The Yellow Umbrella Festival was cleverly crafted to break down such cynics in all of us. It was a comprehensive two-day Mental Health Festival organised by the Surat Global Shapers community, to commemorate the World Mental Health Week, from 4rd to 10th October.  

Mental Health And Millenials

Lately, mental health has emerged as a matter of concern, especially among the millennials. And why shouldn’t it be? India has the dubious distinction of being the most depressed country, according to the World Health Organisation. It is the youth of the nation who are taking the brunt here. The youth’s concern over mental health, is hence, warranted. You have to fight for your brethren. 

Often, shrugged off as the escape mechanism of the weak-hearted, today mental health and hygiene have many supporters, activists and educationalists. I believe that mass media had an upper hand in steering the course of conversation on mental health. Movies like Dear Zindagi and the hauntingly beautiful Joker managed to start a narrative on mental health. 

The Yellow Umbrella Mental Health Festival took this narrative to the next level. Now, that the issue of mental health has been addressed; what next? 

How The Festival Tackled Mental Health Issues Head-On

There were sessions on parents of disabled children, on suicide prevention, the science of mental health and others. Image source: Facebook

The Project Heads – Aakruti Dalmia and Komal Virwani told the attendees about the genesis of this idea in the opening plenary. ‘Mental Health Festival’ sounds like words that mustn’t be put together. And that’s exactly why we must. 

Break preconceived notions, annihilate stereotypes, unlearn all old ways and walk together to celebrate mental health. Yes, you heard it right! Celebrate mental health, for there is no shame.     

The Yellow Umbrella went on to tackle mental health-related issues head-on. There were sessions on parents of disabled children, on suicide prevention, the science of mental health and others. These are uncomfortable and unsettling topics and this mental health festival did not take the easy route of keeping these conversations subtle or sanitised. It is high time that we start confronting these troublesome topics, for, in the bliss of ignorance, the stigma around these, proliferates in unchecked amounts. 

Psychologist Anisha Jhunjhunwala’s session on Emotional Intelligence brought to attention many day-to-day actions that we often misconstrue as reflexes. She talked at length about psychological well-being topics of relationship management, conflicts, goal setting, and problem-solving.

There was a brilliant session on Mental Health First aid by Ms Jigyasa Tandon, a counselling psychologist and Mental Health Educationist from NIMHANS, Bangalore. mental health has managed to find its place in the upper-middle-class households. There are many who seek the help of a counsellor – however, the deliverables of a good counsellor are still very vague. A good counsellor is more than just a means for you to vent out. He/she must be more than just a good listener. I, for instance, was aware of the idea of a therapist; but the occupational therapist and their roles were something new I took away from her session. 

In the panel discussion, moderated by psychiatrist Dharmesh Shah, the speakers spoke about the role of the family in mental health. The speakers on the panel included renowned psychologists, mental health educationists and mental health awareness enthusiasts. Statistics note that the higher rate of suicidal ideation and suicidal attempts were seen for family problems, like abuse, breakdown and domestic violence. These are often known to form the loose pile of tiles on which the Jenga of mental health problems lie. One wrong move and the whole construct could come crashing down for some. Exactly why discussions like these are the need of the hour. 

The evening was called off with an open mic – AWAAZ in collaboration with PSY-FiFor a Health Mind and The Jigsaw Company from Delhi. There were poem recitals, storytelling, songs, and stand-up comedy performances.  An 18-year-old teenager’s poem on depression was in particular very moving. 

“I drown every day in the same water I was baptized in.”

Her poem left a lump in my throat, to say the least. 

The second day of the festival started with a Sound therapy session by Holistica – Rehab and Wellness Center in Surat city. It was followed by Art therapy session facilitated by Organisational Psychologist, Ms Sakshi Grover and Narrative therapy by Ummeed Child Development Center from Mumbai. 

The Drum Circle along with Music Movement session was received with fervour and enthusiasm by the audience. This was followed by a session on mental awareness for parents of autistic kids and a workshop on suicide prevention by Dr. Aarti Mehta, psychiatrist and Dr. Salim Hirani, Pediatrician; both of whom work closely with an organisation – Parenting for Peace

INARA – a support group by Forensic Psychologist Mahek Pathan was an endearing session. There is nothing more assuring than the mental health warriors speaking up. This session, in the true sense, was a celebration. Blowing trumpets on a colossal victory, the victory over mind, victory over self. 

Merely talking about suicide cannot plant the idea of suicide in our heads. Dr Aarti’s session on suicide prevention was an educative and enlightening one. She, along with Dr Salim, spoke of the scientific reasons why suicide rates are the highest among the youth. Often, statistics and science are not viewed with the lens of empathy. This session managed to put these two opposite ingredients in the same cauldron. Yes, there were uncomfortable looks when statistics were rolled out, awkward silences when reasons were established, but I would like to believe that this was just the silence before the storm. A storm to obliterate stigma and myths around mental health while nurturing a healthy community. Now, this is an idea that needs watering. 

What Were My Takeaways From The Festival?

The two-day event concluded on a high note with a performance by a music band – Breaking Bumpers who enthralled the audience with their unconventional yet soulful music. Their opening piece was called Psychedelic Sleep and well it did stand true to its name. The music was soothing and energetic on the same note that left us asking for more. They did comply but time played spoilsport as usual. 

These two days of the festival was undoubtedly a remarkable experience for me. I grew up with the notion that you have to be privileged enough to contract a mental illness. That hollow notion of mine met its crushing defeat at The Yellow Umbrella Mental Health Festival. It is not the problem of the rich but right now only accessible by the privileged. 

Societal and familial issues are prevalent across all sects, but unfortunately, there are some sects that stand at a more vulnerable spot. Inequality shows its ugly face here as well. An article published by The Wire quoted that minoritised stress and complex trauma are among the more significant mental health stressors in our country. Just like physical illness, mental illness also finds its way through generations. Intergenerational trauma is real and hence, the mental health narrative cannot be limited to the educated and the financially privileged. 

Yes, awareness is a tool. But empathy is the deal-breaker. 

The Yellow Umbrella and other such initiatives on mental health intend to achieve exactly that. 

Combating mental illness is a marathon and through The Yellow Umbrella, Surat city has taken its baby steps.

My five takeaways from the two-day Mental Health Festival are;

  1. Develop a hobby. Origami, music, dance, whatever it is that distracts your thoughts.
  2. Have a close circle of people. Be it family, friends, or confidante. 
  3. Figure out your own mental health strategy. Counting tiles, a hot bath, sleeping in, whatever it is that can calm you. 
  4. There is no shame in seeing a therapist or counsellor.
  5. Forgive yourself. Be your own friend. 


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