Mental Health Fiesta at New Delhi - IndiaBioscience

On 4 October 2019, the Mental Health Foundation (India) and Department of Psychiatry, All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi, organised a Mental Health Fiesta. Hina Lateef Nizami, who attended the Fiesta, writes about what set this event apart from other mental health awareness sessions.

We all know what a film festival, literature festival, science festival or food festival looks like. What about a ​‘mental health festival’? What image does the term conjure up in your mind?

When I first heard of one, my expectations swung between diametrical opposites – either this was going to be a student-led fest of activities or this was just a fancy name for a mental health awareness event.

But first, let us ask – what’s the point of a mental health festival anyway? Well, apart from all the statistics dubbing India as one of the most depressed countries in the world, an issue that stares us in the face is the distorted perception of and stigma associated with mental health issues. A look at this pan-India survey report shows that a major chunk of the responders indicate that they prefer keeping a safe distance from people perceived as suffering from a mental illness.

How do we even begin resolving a crisis that we don’t even like talking about? Making conversations around mental health mainstream is what we need, and events like this festival could be a way to facilitate such discussions.

On these lines, Mental Health Fiesta was held on 4th October at All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi. This event was jointly organised by Mental Health Foundation (India) and Department of Psychiatry, AIIMS, New Delhi and was attended by ~1500 people. The event included a mix of panel discussions, talks, and performances, involving mental health professionals, media personalities, authors, poets, and a stand-up comedian.

This event was held to mark the beginning of World Mental Health Awareness week. The World Health Organisation (WHO) theme for this year’s mental health awareness week was ​“Suicide Prevention and Mental Health promotion”. Aptly enough, a panel named ​“The Power of Semicolon: Personal Narratives on Suicide” was a highlight of this event.

Of late, community-based approaches to suicide prevention have shown promise. Aparna Joshi of Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai used the platform to talk about iCall, a psychosocial helpline started in 2012 by TISS. Panel member Nelson Vinod Moses described how a friend’s suicide drove him to set up Suicide Prevention India Foundation which provides ​‘gatekeeper’ training programs.

When we talk of caring for youngsters facing suicidal thoughts or mental health issues, parents are often the first point-of-contact. We can all testify to the make-or-break role their attitude can have on our mental health while growing up. In the panel ​“Superheroes Wear Kindness: Fighting Battles Against Bullying”, Soma Das, a freelance journalist, described how a shift in her attitude from disbelieving-to-listening made a huge difference for her daughter who was being bullied at school. Later, Saswati Singh, founder of The Inspiration project and NavPrerna Foundation, described how her struggle as mother of a child with special needs led her to start the project.

Even if we have a strong support system of family and friends willing to listen to us, constant insensitive reportage of suicides by media can take a serious toll on our well-being. Overly descriptive sensationalised accounts of suicides can trigger ​‘copycat’ suicides. Brij Bakshi, former additional director general at Doordarshan outlined how we can sensitise the media towards responsible reporting of mental health. He advised journalists to avoid using the terms ​“commit” and ​“successful” in relation to suicides, and help change the narrative ​“from blaming to claiming”.

Apart from the serious discussions, in keeping with its name, this event was a fiesta peppered with entertaining performances as well. A session filled with crackling one-liners by Padmashri awarded Hindi poet Surendra Sharma drew roars of laughter, while specially abled persons from the The Inspiration Project awed the crowd with a vibrant dance performance. A shadow play on suicide prevention by team Parindey from Mata Sundri College, Delhi University set the tone for the second half of the event. Dastangoi, an ancient form of Urdu storytelling, was performed by members of the Dastangoi collective. Team ScoopWhoop and Prakti, a music therapist, presented the concluding musical performances of the event.

What made this event special? For me, it was the right balance of light-hearted and serious discussions around various facets of mental health. The panels were not preachy, performances not insensitive, and the message not lost at any point. Mental Health Foundation India launched the hard copy of Mansik Swasthya Patrika, India’s first Hindi e‑magazine on mental health, at this event. In an official statement on the Foundation’s website, MHF says, ​“The Festival brought together the youth of this country to express themselves, exchange ideas and start a dialogue on how important their mental health is.”

The Department of Psychiatry at AIIMS, the co-organiser of the event, announced plans to conduct sessions focused on mental health in schools in the national capital. Sustained commitment of the stakeholders to the cause of mental health is the need of the hour, and this is probably what made the Mental Health Fiesta the event that it was. Here’s looking forward to more of these!

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