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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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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