How Neerja Birla’s Mpower is stamping out the stigma around mental health in Mumbai

With a theme of #StampOutStigma, the ‘Ride to Mpower’ campaign completed its fourth edition in Mumbai, where over 1,700 cyclists and fitness enthusiasts pledged to become champions of mental health.

A study by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2015 states that one in five Indians, equivalent to 200 million people, may suffer from depression in their lifetime. Yet mental health remains a taboo in most Indian households, schools, colleges, and offices. According to this report, only 10-12 percent seek help due to the stigma associated with the illness, and also due to lack of awareness and limited access to professional help.

Neerja Birla, Founder and Chairperson of Mpower, an Aditya Birla Education Trust initiative to address mental healthcare gaps in India, believes that taboo prevents real progress and hinders people from seeking help and counselling. Hence, with an aim to bring awareness and encourage conversation around mental health she started the ‘Ride to Mpower’ campaign in 2015.

“Everyone knows that it's important and normal to take care of one's physical health, and Mpower endeavours to make people aware that it is just as important and normal to take care of one's mental health,” Neerja says.

With a theme of #StampOutStigma, the campaign completed its fourth edition in Mumbai where over 1,700 cyclists, and fitness enthusiasts pledged to become champions of mental health. Over the years the campaign has strived to educate individuals on the correlation between physical and mental health toward an individual’s overall well being.

“The cycle ride is our way of reaching out to the community to highlight that a healthy mind is as important as a healthy body,” she says.

Also read: Why it is important to design programmes that enhance employees’ mental well being

Addressing mental health

When compared to developed nations, India suffers from a lack of early screening/diagnosis system when it comes to mental illness. For example, most schools do not have a counsellor to help monitor the psychological state of children in the same way they keep track of physical health. 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.

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. It is important to discuss mental health problems and address the multiple challenges.  

Mpower endeavours to be a movement that brings in change at the national level. Ride to Mpower aims to carry forward its vision and was based on the idea that it is essential to take care of our bodies in order to take care of our minds.

Also read: Enabling the differently abled: How inclusive are India’s workplaces?

The work done so far

Neerja Birla flags off the 'Ride to Mpower' campaign in Mumbai

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 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.
  • 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.

Also read: The ambitious Mental Healthcare Bill is a step closer to a progressive India

Plans ahead

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 are a good way of ensuring long-term psychiatric health.

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.”

Mpower has trained counsellors on board and their doctors can identify and guide parents toward the right treatment for their ward. Quite often, 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 and cover more cities.


Updates from around the world