Ananya Birla Talks About Her Trysts With Anxiety, The State Of Mental Health In India And Her Latest Venture Mpower
Most of us are able to talk about our physical health without shame or blame and the same should apply to mental health.
1. Why has there always been stigma around mental illnesses, and prejudice against people suffering, in or outside India?
Globally, depression and suicide rates are on the rise, and people are scared to reach out for help because they don’t want to be judged. The stigma around mental health is an issue everywhere, but it is particularly prevalent in India because mental health is a topic that is rarely discussed and when it is, it is often either overblown or trivialised. Society gives us the message that one should either ‘get over it’ or be completely destroyed by it. A lot of people form their view of what someone with a mental health issue looks like, based on historic and outdated perceptions that mental illness equates to personal weakness or insanity. It’s hard to collectively shake-off the stereotypes about mental illness and how it affects those dealing with it. Greater investment is needed in providing proper care around the world and enhancing education around mental health. However, the first challenge we face is the taboo which prevents us from even discussing it. We as a society need to normalise and de-stigmatise conversations. Most of us are able to talk about our physical health without shame or blame and the same should apply to mental health.
2. Would you say that the situation is better or worse in our country?
It is a global issue, but the degree to which Indians have to suffer silently is alarming. People are afraid to get the support they need because they don’t want to be perceived as inadequate or shamed. I was saddened, but not surprised to read a report recently which said that India was the most depressed country in the world with the highest suicide rate. The pace and pressure of life for so many people here is more intense than I have witnessed anywhere else and it is so difficult for people to get help. Not just because of the stigma, but also because there just are not enough psychiatrists and therapists to help them. There are only 3000 psychiatrists for the 20 million Indians suffering from mental illness.
3. What role, according to you, does fitness have to play in tackling mental health issues?
Physical activity can have an extremely positive impact on your mental health. Even half an hour of daily exercise can improve your mood, well-being and self-esteem and also reduce anxiety. Medical studies have proven that it encourages your body to release chemicals such as endorphins, which make you feel more emotionally positive and mentally alert. We put on a cyclathon last year for MPower which, on top of raising money for a great cause, also promoted how valuable looking after your body can be for your mind. Personally, nothing makes me feel better than regular exercise. Whether it is going for a run, playing football with friends, dancing or hitting the gym.
A lot of things in life can make us feel overwhelmed and powerless. For me, exercise is the antidote to that. It’s a time when I can ‘switch-off’ my worries and mental chatter, and focus on what’s going on with my body instead.
4. Tell us about your initiative MPower.
MPower is a mental health initiative focused on alleviating the stigma associated with mental illness and providing world-class care. We educate people and we also have a one-of-a-kind holistic centre where psychologists, psychiatrists and therapists that specialize in various kinds of therapies provide support. Through MPower, I’m seeing more and more people opening up every single day to talk about mental health without feeling misplaced shame. There is a lot of work to be done, but the change in awareness and public perception is happening quickly.
We have some great initiatives. Last year we ran our #EarForYou campaign on social media to encourage people to speak about mental health issues, if they are suffering, and to encourage the people around them to lend a kind and supportive ear. It is important for people to verbalise what they are going through, no one should have to suffer alone. The campaign focussed on suicide prevention, which is an extremely important issue in India where one student every hour takes their own life. The highlight of the campaign was a concert with Arjit Singh which brought together 20,000 people in Mumbai.
5. Was there a particular incident that moved you to create MPower?
Mental health affects people from every country and every social background. It’s something that we share in common across the globe. I battled against anxiety and panic attacks whilst I was at university in the UK, but I found it difficult to reach out for help because I was nervous that people would undermine my abilities. When I returned to India with this first-hand experience, it became obvious that the problem with stigma and lack of support there, was even worse. I was shocked at the lack of awareness and support available.
6. Could you share your personal tips on how people can ensure that they stay in top shape - mentally?
• Open up, when you feel down. Sometimes just getting it out of your head and sharing what you are feeling can make so much difference.
• Be sensible with social media – remember it is not a reality.