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“We champion mental health issues”

Neerja Birla is founder-chairperson of the Mpower Centre, a Mumbai-based mental health diagnostic and treatment centre, and Mpower Foundation, a mental healthcare initiative launched under the corporate social responsibility (CSR) programme of Idea Cellular Ltd, an Aditya Birla Group company. Excerpts from an interview:

What were the motivating factors which prompted you to promote Mpower Centre and Mpower Foundation?

In India, there’s still significant social stigma associated with mental illness. People are ashamed and embarrassed to admit that they or a family member have mental health problems. This thwarts open discussion about this important social problem. Moreover, we also have an acute shortage of mental health professionals in India with only one psychiatrist for every 10,000 people suffering from mental health conditions. 

I believe it’s in the public interest to have open conversations about prevention, early intervention and treatment of mental health illnesses. Therefore, bearing in mind that over 60 million Indians suffer mental health ailments, I started the Mpower Movement with my daughter, Ananya. Through the Mpower Centre and Mpower Foundation, we want to encourage open discussions and provide counseling and treatment to people suffering mental health problems. 

What are the aims and objectives of the Mpower institutions?

The Mpower Movement proactively champions mental health issues, generates awareness and suggests educational remedies. Through events and campaigns such as Ride to Mpower, #EverydayHeroes, and #StampOutStigma, the movement improves solidarity within the cause, sparks conversations and reduces the social stigma associated with mental health. The Mpower Centre provides counseling and treatment through a holistic and multi-disciplinary approach. The Mpower Foundation provides similar services, but to underserved sections of society. 

In schools and colleges, counseling facilities for students are lacking even though the incidence of suicide and self-destructive behaviour is highest among teens and youth. How do you explain neglect of this important issue? 

There are several reasons for suboptimal mental healthcare facilities in our education institutions. Shortage of mental health professionals is one of them. A few schools have SEN (special education needs) teams because of the insistence of their boards of management. But most schools lack counsellors and immediate access to mental health professionals. 

Another reason for the neglect of this critical issue is discomfort with the subject. There is a misconception that talking about mental health and possible suicides with school or college students will prompt them to engage in self-destructive behaviour. However, research studies indicate that talking about suicide and ways to prevent and treat depression actually dissuades teens and young adults from hurting themselves. All schools and colleges should appoint counsellors so students have access to mental healthcare professionals. 

What is your strategy to reach your message about mental healthcare issues to schools and colleges countrywide?

Mpower Foundation’s IGNITE outreach programme and SAP (school assistance programme) are designed to raise awareness and provide mental health counseling and treatment services in schools. Through SAP, Mpower professionals communicate important information related to mental health such as early intervention, parenting, child and adolescent mental health, neurodevelopmental disorders, reflective teaching, etc, to students, parents, and teachers of K-12 schools. Through SAP, we also offer to establish counseling cells in schools which lack in-house mental health professionals. Under IGNITE, we have launched a College Assistance Programme to help institutional managements to disseminate strategies and interventions for personal and family support. We also provide expert and confidential counselling services, convene workshops, and suggest wellness programmes.

There is a severe shortage of duly trained and qualified counselors in India. What are your plans for building capacity to train, develop and certify mental health professionals?

There is, indeed, a dire shortage of mental health professionals in India. As our efforts to raise awareness and reduce the stigma around mental health problems gain traction, our hope is that students will be inspired to pursue education in mental health and related fields. Mpower also has an internship programme in which students interested in this field can learn more about this profession. 

What are your future plans for Mpower Centre and Foundation?

We have drawn up several innovative and exciting plans to spread awareness and provide counseling and curative services. A membership programme will provide mental health professionals a platform to share ideas, discuss developments in mental healthcare and build networks. We also plan to reach out to more education institutions through our school, college and employee assistance programmes. 

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