After her parents divorced when she was a child living in Chandigarh, northern India, Tarini Chawla struggled to cope. Her father’s alcoholism and abuse had badly affected her. Today, the 28-year-old financial consultant for KPMG, a business advisory in Bangalore, is also a vocal advocate for mental health.
Medication and therapy helped her a great deal, she says, but it wasn’t until she spoke openly about her problems that she began to see real change. Chawla began to blog about her struggles and open up to friends and colleagues.
“I healed a little every time I told my story,” she says. “And I realised that it was important for people to pay heed to their mental health challenges and to talk about them.”
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Chawla’s story is now part of India’s first interactive digital mental health museum, Mann Mela, which launched in February this year.
Mann Mela documents inspiring stories of people who have mental health challenges caused by difficult situations and circumstances in their lives, and who are finding ways to heal.
On its website, Chawla tells of fending off attacks from her inebriated father in her own words in an animated feature. “I remember we would lock our doors and sit next to the door; he’d be banging and pushing against it,” she narrates. “The three of us – my sister, mum and I – would put all our weight against the door, making sure he wouldn’t get in. After he left (for good), sleeping felt peaceful and we were much less afraid.”
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But the fear never really ended when he went away, she says. Chawla speaks of assuming the “male” role even as a child, protecting her sister and mother, both of whom were prone to asthma. The impact that the stress of these additional responsibilities had on her own life was significant, she says. When exam pressure piled up and she sank into depression, she realised she needed help.
By animating first-person stories of those who have struggled with trauma and mental health issues, the Mann Mela team hopes to engage young people in open conversations on mental health in a country where such discussions, while much needed, are usually taboo and cloaked in shame. Launched by Sangath, a Goa-based mental health research institution, the Mann Mela is an extension of its digital mental health blogs called “It’s Okay To Talk”.
Mann Mela’s aim is to build an awareness that taking care of our mental health should be a priority, and a routine that is part of our everyday lives, says Pattie Gonsalves, Mann Mela’s principal investigator.
Mental health has long been neglected. In a study in the medical journal The Lancet, it was established that in 2017, mental disorders affected as many as 197.3 million people in India, or one in seven. Of the total, 45.7 million suffered depression, while 44. 9 million had anxiety-related disorders.
Collecting people’s true stories, getting them to share first-person accounts of the traumatic experiences that have defined their lives, and helping them talk about their own journey to finding support and healing is key.
“We believe that each person has a story to tell and listening to these diverse stories will help us understand and make sense of our own mental health struggles and experiences,” says Gonsalves. “Ultimately, it’s about building resilience and encouraging people to reach out for mental health support that can sustain them through their lives.”
Faith Gonsalves, Mann Mela’s storytelling consultant, adds: “Through this we hope to help young people see that these challenges can be overcome with the right kind of help and support. We provide these resources on our website.”
The stories are presented using graphic art, audio narration and animation. The primary target audience is people aged 18 to 24. “We do create our content in a way that is appealing to a wider demographic as well,” says Pattie Gonsalves, though the emphasis is on examining the close relationships that young people have at home, school or university, and the neighbourhood they live in.
The team includes mental health experts, researchers, designers and artists. Mann Mela’s first interactive exhibit was held at a fair in the Indian state of Goa in February. It included a recreation of the bedroom of a contributor who spoke of their struggles with their own gender identity that led to depression.
Visitors could listen to an audio story of the person’s life and challenges, while having an opportunity to see how they lived.
Mann Mela is scheduled to tour to several major Indian cities as an interactive exhibition over the next two years, and its creators also plan to use immersive virtual reality technology to tell stories.
The museum has shifted online during the coronavirus pandemic. As it builds its digital resources, eight other true-life tales of battling depression are in the pipeline, to be released each month.
Investing in young people’s mental health now will make a difference to their well-being and productivity over the longer term, says Sweta Pal, Mann Mela’s communications director. “And making everyday connections, such as asking a friend about their day, walking your dog, and investing in the relationships around you is a critical first step to nurturing close ties and battling isolation.”
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As young people in India struggle with financial insecurity and social anxiety caused by the pandemic, initiatives like Mann Mela are gaining prominence as tools for social cohesion. In a world in which you can no longer seem to cope, talking about and addressing mental health issues early is critical, experts say.
“Who could have imagined that the world would be looking at a spiralling (mental) health crisis unlike any witnessed in our lifetime?” asks Dr Vikram Patel, a mental health expert at Harvard Medical school who advises the Mann Mela project.
“Mental health is emerging as a key concern, as the vulnerabilities that some are experiencing are being greatly exacerbated by the times we are living in now. We want these stories of resilience and recovery to be told and heard throughout India, a country with the largest number of young people in the world.”
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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
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