#Interviews

Dr Neerja Birla On Ending Stigma Around Mental Health; How We Can Help

Neerja Birla On Mental Health
It takes time to adjust to the new reality of working from home, being temporarily unemployed, homeschooling kids, and not having physical touch with other family members, friends, or coworkers. It can be difficult for all of us to adjust to lifestyle changes like these, manage our fear of being sick, and worry about those close to us who may be especially vulnerable. For those dealing with mental illnesses, they might be very challenging.

SheThePeople hosted a session with Dr Neerja Birla Founder & Chairperson, Mpower which is a holistic mental health care initiative. Dr Birla discussed with us the significance of mental health and why it is necessary to de-stigmatise it. 

Neerja Birla On Mental Health

When Neerja Birla launched Mpower, six years ago, mental health was a bigger taboo than it is today.  “There wasn’t much that was said about it. One wasn’t aware of the resources and people were not willing to acknowledge that there could be a mental health problem,” she said. Adding, “It was the need of the hour to really bring mental health conversations to the fore because children were facing many kinds of concerns. It was such a taboo topic that initially people were not even willing to listen to what it was all about.”

Dr Birla’s desire to increase awareness and accessibility to resources for mental health was increased as she drew inspiration from her personal challenges, particularly those related to overcoming postpartum depression. She claimed that one would have had a different experience with the same if there had been sufficient awareness and tools available.  Opening to us about her experience with postpartum depression, Neerja says, “I was quite clueless about it. Later in life, I realised that had I known that there is something like postpartum depression or had I been aware of it, I could have handled the situation much better.” While there was not a direct connection or trigger which brought Neerja to mental health activism, she feels that people should have known about mental health early on to be a lot kinder to themselves. 

Mental Health Conversations Within Family

For Dr Birla, having normal conversations about mental health is key to acknowledging mental health emergencies as real problems. “If you have a headache, you talk about it. You would want to seek help. Similarly, if you are going through periods of anxiety or if you are feeling any mental health concerns, just talking about it does half the job,” she says. Children can also cope with mental health issues better if parents had initiated the conversations around mental health. 

Mental Health issues among the queer community

Mental health issues among the queer community need to be discussed with utmost priority, when a child comes out about their sexuality, how should the parents respond? “As parents, we must not think of queerness to be anything abnormal. Parents need to understand why their children are feeling what they are feeling. One needs to stop saying things like, ‘You’re crazy,’ ‘You don’t know what you’re saying,’ ‘Don’t talk about these,’ ‘What is wrong with you?’ etc. These are the kind of comments we should stay away from. As parents, we just need to hear them out and accept them for who they are and not for their sexual preferences.” 

“The minute we see or hear somebody who has a same-sex preference, we alienate them as a community. If we move away from being judgemental, the society, on the whole, can make a progressive change but most importantly, the change needs to be made in our minds,” Dr Birla opines. 


Suggested Reading: Girls’ Mental Health Affected More Than Boys’ During Pandemic, Finds Research


Speaking to us about the correlation between mental health and positivity, Dr Birla said, “On the whole, if you have a positive outlook on life, contributes in some sense to have good mental health.” The pandemic has also pushed us to mainstream discussions about mental health like never before. In Dr Birla’s opinion, the only good thing the pandemic did was to bring conversations around mental health to the forefront. “We haven’t seen these kinds of better conversations pre-pandemic at all.”

While there are many more miles to go, one hopes that the stigma around mental health slowly fades away as people start caring about their feelings as well as about others. 

You can watch the session here: