Neerja Birla’s Mpower brings the much needed spotlight on the mental wellness of Indian youth
Neerja Birla, wife of Aditya Birla Group chairman Kumaramangalam Birla, and mother of three children, had always been happy maintaining a low profile. However, her passion towards the cause of children’s education and mental health has seen her taking up the mantle at various organisations recently.
Neerja is the founder and chairperson of Mpower, an organisation that works towards tackling mental health issues among the youth. “The primary roadblock to mental wellness is stigma and that’s what we hope to change,” she explains. The World Mental Health Day is coming up on the October 10, and there is good reason why a day was chosen for global mental health education, awareness and advocacy. This field is fraught with ignorance, fear and a tendency to push issues under the carpet.
The biggest challenge is a prevalence of various misconceptions in our society and a lack of information and awareness. This very lack of information and awareness makes young people feel like their illness is something to be ashamed of and propagates further stigma and secretiveness, thereby becoming a vicious cycle. So mental illness often goes undiagnosed and untreated. People should accept that mental well-being is just like physical well-being.
The Indian story
The news story mentioned below is just one among many similar tragedies taking place in various Indian cities and towns.
Distraught after being bullied in a school van, a 14-year-old student of a reputed school in the city has committed suicide by jumping from the tenth floor of his apartment building The victim left behind a suicide note that said he was depressed over the regular bullying about his physical features.
When compared to developed nations, India suffers from a lack of early screening/diagnosis system. For examples, most schools do not have a counsellor to help monitor the psychological state of children in the same way as physical health is kept track of. India also has the ignominy of having one of the highest suicide rates globally, especially among adolescents, with over one lakh Indians on an average committing suicide every year.
As the second most populous nation in the world, India faces perilous challenges related to mental health, especially given the increasing competition and stress in day-to-day life and the unravelling of family ties. Statistics indicate that 15-20 percent of children and adolescents in India today suffer from some form of mental disorder. Today, 50 percent of India’s population is below the age of 25, and it has been estimated that by the year 2020, the average age of an Indian will be 29 years, one of the youngest in the world, making the country especially vulnerable.
How Mpower empowers
Mpower endeavours to be a movement that brings in change at the national level.
The organisation has three verticals:
- The Movement, works to improve awareness and understanding of mental health conditions. From a broader call to action through events like Ride to Mpower, Mpower is also undertaking targeted outreach through workshops at schools, colleges and corporates. Mpower also hosts workshops at their centre aimed at the general public but also specifically for friends and families of people with mental issues, who often need support and guidance.
- The Centre, which offers diagnostics, treatment and counselling for psychiatric conditions such as anxiety, depression and other mood disorders, issues like bed wetting, substance abuse, eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, sleep disturbances, trauma or stress-related problems and personality disorders. Issues at school like peer pressure, bullying, academic stress and other school problems that are often ignored to the child’s peril are also addressed. Relationship issues or problems with family, physical or sexual abuse, sexuality and identity issues are other areas that the Mpower team is focussing on. The Centre also chalks out treatment programmes for learning and speech disorders, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Autism Spectrum Disorders.
- The Mpower Foundation is making mental healthcare services accessible to members of economically-backward families, so that the cost barrier is not a deterrent to quality medical care.
Neerja believes the ultimate solution to any mental health problem is to empower children and adolescents to manage their problems by themselves. Allied therapies such as art-based and music therapy, dance and movement therapy, pet therapy, yoga and meditation, brain gym, better nutrition and development of Emotional Intelligence is a good way of ensuring long-term psychiatric health.
Mpower has trained counsellors on board and their doctors can identify and guide parents toward the right treatment for their ward. Quite often, the parents too require counselling and corrective behaviour, and the team often works with the entire family.
Mpower is currently based in Mumbai but Neerja has plans to scale up and cover more cities. There is a consistent effort to create awareness from conducting workshops to organising various events. Ride to Mpower was an initiative based on the idea that it is essential to take care of our bodies in order to take care of our minds. Over 1,000 participants participated in a 30-km cycle ride on April 24, 2016, led by Neerja and her daughter, Ananya Birla (who is also very much involved in the organisation).
How can the support system help?
I ask Neerja how the friends or family of a youngsters facing psychiatric problems can help since the sufferer is often in denial or is ashamed to ask for or accept help. She says, “People often isolate themselves and the loneliness makes their condition worse. Clichéd as it might sound, love is the cure. Reach out to them and say, 'I am there for you.' When there is no judgement, they will let you in.”
More about Neerja Birla
Neerja is the chairperson of The Aditya Birla World Academy as well as The Aditya Birla Integrated School, a school for children with special needs and abilities. She also serves on the Board of ‘Pratham’ and ‘Make-a- Wish Foundation.’