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Who Is Self-Improvement’ For?

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By Sadaf Vidha:

The ‘rags to riches’ story trope is perhaps one of pop culture’s favourites, and for good reason. We want to believe that the work we do towards having a good life really counts, and that we are the biggest drivers of change in our lives. However, there’s a reason why this trope cannot be realised for everyone, and stays limited to books and movies.

In a capitalist society, where the pursuit of profit and the free market serve as the basis for economics, it’s difficult to assure a basic lifestyle where needs are met for everyone. Lifestyles are dependent on how much money you can make. This, in turn, is dependent on a range of factors—the labour market, the economic climate, and cultural and structural systems such as caste, class, and access to networks, among other things.

Too often, we subscribe to the myopic narrative that if people work hard, they can achieve their goals; and those who aren’t able to, are perhaps lazy. In fact, I believe that from a young age we are taught through various systems—our schools, prevailing cultural norms, the media—that we must earn what we want, and if we can’t do this, something may be wrong with us. For many, this can feed into a cycle of worthlessness; it can negatively impact mental health and well-being.

For example, our education system focuses on certain skills and neurotypical behaviours as indicators of success but doesn’t acknowledge other factors at play. As Sir Ken Orbinson highlights in his TED talk, the way that schools currently tend to function is to produce consumers and employees of tomorrow, who will not ask too many uncomfortable questions.
Paulo Friere’s landmark book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed speaks about the ‘banking system’ of education where knowledge is deposited into children who are considered empty vessels, to be withdrawn at a later date. This model rewards concentration, memory, and reproduction of information, over other skills such as critical thinking, visual and spatial reasoning, or social skills.

Given this, we often internalise the narrative that we, as individuals, are somehow at fault and need to change. Whether it’s through self-help books, upskilling, life coaches, or any other avenue, self-improvement and increasing productivity are perceived as ‘solutions’.

Is improving yourself or being more ‘productive’ really the answer?

In an article for The Correspondent, journalist Tanmoy Goswami analyses the link between productivity and mental health. He critiques a statement made by philanthropist Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, that makes the case for investing in mental health. She writes that if we don’t invest in mental health, it will cost us “over a trillion dollars in lost productivity”. Goswami questions why productivity is a motive to improve well-being. He says, “Apparently, a mentally healthy society is not the civilisational goal it ought to be. It is just another commodity, another dumb variable on an Excel sheet. Manipulate well for best returns.”

“An individual’s mental health is of no consequence as long as they can maintain their productivity (or the appearance of it),” Goswami adds.

If you think about it, being productive is not actually an indicator of well-being. People with mental health issues can be highly productive. We need to overhaul our understanding of productivity and self-improvement altogether. This is challenging, considering that there are entire industries dedicated to selling productivity and self-improvement.

Advertisements are always telling us how we should appear in the world. We’re sold products to improve ourselves. Haircare, skin care, appearing more confident, dressing better—all of these and more, exhort us to change. As a person of colour, journalist Ayesha Muttucumaru laments on colourism in India, “One notable example is the ‘fairness’ cream Fair & Lovely whose advertisements in India have historically implied that fair skin might help you meet the person of your dreams, or finally get that job you’ve always desired.” Research on the ethical issues in marketing skin lightening products suggests that advertisements like these deeply impact our self-esteem.

“Mindfulness programmes constantly silence questions on structural causes of stress.”

Apart from changing externally, the self-help industry is also constantly selling us tools to improve internally. From books to coaches, to apps, this industry is constantly growing. Professor Ronald Purser’s critique of the mindfulness industry outlines how mindfulness apps and programmes constantly silence questions on structural causes of stress and make individuals feel bad for ‘not being mindful enough’.

Abstract illustration of a man nurturing plants growing out of his head
The future of mental healthcare is community-led, reflective, and intersectional. Picture courtesy: Toggl

Not to say that internal work isn’t important. It is; we all need to work on ourselves. But we need to ask ourselves: What is the goal of improving? Today, self-help often looks like:

1. A prescriptive set of ‘good habits’

Self-help books often read as a set of habits that we simply need to develop. For example, building a routine, making sure to sleep on time, eating on time, or communicating in a certain way. While some of these might be healthy, often, habits are prescriptive, and are hinged around ‘doing something’. A person may try to develop these habits and fail. This again makes it seem like they have failed as an individual—tying into a cycle of worthlessness and helplessness.

“Using certain habits as a marker for wellness can make mental health issues invisible.”

Even when an individual does develop ‘good habits’ and manages to sleep well or retain their job, they may still have depression or anxiety. Using certain habits as a marker for wellness can make mental health issues invisible. So, not only do prescriptive habits affect those who cannot be productive, but also those who can.

2. An individualistic issue

Changing habits is a very self-oriented process, and further reinforces the notion that self-help is individualistic. Whereas, if you look at how burnout or exhaustion function, it’s often external factors that don’t enable an individual to take a break. As this Harvard Business Review article shows, no amount of breathing techniques or ‘learning to say no’ can help you, if your workplace is badly structured. The article lists the following factors that contribute to burnout: Unfair treatment at work, unmanageable workload, lack of role clarity, lack of communication and support from one’s manager, and unreasonable time pressure. It’s clear that these issues cannot all be controlled or changed by any one individual. Research also shows that employee care programmes do not really help in addressing issues with engagement or burnout. We simply aren’t having enough conversations around the fact that what an individual needs in order not to burn out isn’t always accessible to them.

“Healing or getting better doesn’t involve just one person.”

Even when we think about healing—whether it’s group therapy or even one-to-one therapy—it takes place in a relational context. The therapeutic relationship is the biggest driver of change, influencing outcomes more than techniques, experience, and type of therapy. So, it’s clear that healing or getting better doesn’t involve just one person, and self-care can sometimes take that context away.

So, what needs to change?

We need to look at different models when it comes to mental healthcare and well-being.

In India for example, there has been a long history of ritual healing when it comes to mental health issues. Ritual healing is the traditional healing that occurs in religious places like dargahs and shrines. It has a spiritual bent, and focuses on expression of symptoms rather than suppression. Traditional, western approaches to psychiatry and mental health focus on the latter—suppressing symptoms. Studies show the impact and helpfulness of ritual healing, and the work of experts such as Sudhir Kakkar and William Sachs suggests why these practices may be more suitable to our contexts than a typical, western psychiatric approach.

“We need to create spaces for healing where the focus is not on improvement as a route to well-being.”

More importantly, we need approaches that don’t rely on an individual-centric outlook and move beyond this to include communities as resources for well-being. For example, Bapu Trust, a community mental health non-profit working in the bastis of Pune uses a blended approach for their community-level work. They use art-based therapy and work on expanding support networks for individuals in distress to include their families, friends, neighbours, and so on, as a part of the healing process.

We also need to create spaces for healing where the focus is not on improvement as a route to well-being. Survivor-led movements, for example, like the Hearing Voices Network (HVN) or Mad in Asia, show how healing can be a community exercise, where people don’t need to feel like they are struggling in isolation. These groups also engage in various levels of advocacy for this cause, which helps challenge the helpless feeling when people are struggling with a mental health issue.

The future of mental healthcare is community-led, reflective, and intersectional. It is a future of questioning systems and structures that cause distress. The time is ripe to adopt these lenses and practices into mainstream approaches of mental healthcare.

This article was originally published on India Development Review (IDR)

About the author:

Sadaf Vidha is a therapist and researcher with five years of experience. She is interested in a cross-disciplinary understanding of human behaviour at the intersections of mental health, sociology, social justice, and economics. You can find her on Instagram (@shrinkfemale) and Twitter (@randomwhiz).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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