[HerStory Conversations] “Self-love is not selfish and we need to look after ourselves too,” says Neerja Birla of Mpower

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Neerja Birla, Founder and Chairperson of Mpower, is a pioneer in mental healthcare in India. She tells HerStory why it’s essential for more people to collaborate on raising awareness on mental health.
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As the pandemic rages on, women continue to bear the brunt of its effects – whether it’s increased stress and anxiety resulting from working from home, more incidences of domestic violence, or loss of jobs.

The CARE’s Rapid Gender Analysis conducted among men and across 38 countries revealed that the number of women who reported mental health impacts was threefold that of men. More women also reported incidences of stress, anxiety, and other mental health issues.

According to UN Women, since the outbreak of COVID-19, emerging data and reports from those on the frontlines have shown that all types of violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence, has intensified.

With the pandemic not ending anytime soon, there should be an increased focus on raising awareness and introducing interventions in mental healthcare so that women are not afraid to seek help.

Neerja Birla, Founder and Chairperson – Mpower, a pioneer in mental healthcare in India, in an interview with HerStory, talks about the unprecedented mental health situation caused by COVID-19, its effects on women, and what they can do not to feel overwhelmed.

Neerja Birla

Edited excerpts from the interview:

HerStory (HS): It’s one-and-a-half years since the start of the pandemic, and according to studies, women have borne a considerable brunt juggling different things…

Neerja Birla (NB): The challenges brought on by the pandemic have been unprecedented. Everyone, irrespective of economic strata, has felt the brunt of it in some way or the other. But what I think happened with women, mainly working women, is that they faced it more – because the responsibility fell on them as women to take charge of the situation.

This excessive burden led some of them to let go of their jobs. This, coupled with domestic violence, in many cases, and a lack of emotional support, has impacted women's mental health.

Statistics tell us that about 39 percent of the total global employment workforce is women, but 54 percent of the job losses during the pandemic have come from women. So you can see the disparity of job loss, have been faced more by working women. It’s a sad fallout of the situation.

HS: We are all being asked to adjust to a new normal, which has also brought in the sense of helplessness. Do you think that women have been able to adjust to this new normal?

NB: In my opinion, women are emotionally stronger. The human spirit is anyway so resilient that I think one just adapts to new situations very quickly. The first wave took us all by surprise, but we sort of slowly fell into some sort of pattern. The second wave, of course, took us all by shock, and all of us personally felt the impact.

Yes, women are very resilient; they adjust, adapt, and fall into new patterns quickly and find new ways of interconnecting with people. In the process of adjusting, many women working women have had to leave their jobs. That's their way of adjusting to it.

HS: Have more women come forward to seek help during the pandemic? What were the initiatives undertaken by MPower?

NB: During the pandemic, we saw domestic violence had increased; I think that was obviously because both partners were at home.

Surprisingly, when we launched a mental health helpline right at the start of the pandemic, we saw that about 70 percent of the callers were men. It was quite a revealing statistic against the stereotype that men don't want to talk about mental health. We have also seen a lot of women reach out for help.

We also launched a project with the Mumbai police, where we are setting up counselling cells in particular in each region, reaching out to the victims of sexual assault and counselling them.

We also introduced the Mind Map programme, a mental health curriculum for K-12 in schools, by reaching out to teachers and training them in primary mental health literacy. We aim to introduce mental health awareness right from the so that when children get older, they are equipped to handle situations and have the right coping mechanisms in place.

Currently, 17 schools have introduced it as part of their curriculum, and over the next two years, we are hoping to include many more. Until prevention and early intervention happen, we are not going to see a reduction in overall numbers.

HS: Despite increasing mental health awareness, India remains one of the most depressed countries in the world…

NB: We need different stakeholders from different backgrounds to take awareness on and embrace it. As a community, we need schools to embrace this idea and then promote it, and corporates too.

The way to expedite it is to get more people to collaborate on this cause and spread the word. Each of us needs to pledge that we will follow specific steps to raise awareness – whether it’s at home or the workplace.

HS: What can women do not feel overwhelmed by situations daily?

NJ: From my own experience, I believe, often as mums and caregivers, we put ourselves last. I think we need just to show more self-love.

We need to remember that self-love is not selfish and look after ourselves too.


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Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta