Nurturing minds one step at a time

Feb 05, 2017, 09:48 IST | Anju Maskeri

With her new foundation, Neerja Birla hopes to put the spotlight on mental illness plaguing underprivileged children and rid the stigma attached to the disease

Consider this. About 20 per cent of all Indian children and adolescents suffer from a disabling mental illness. By 2020, 20 per cent of India’s population will suffer from a mental illness. And, to make matters worse, currently there are only 3,000 psychiatrists for 20 million Indians suffering from mental illness. “These numbers are even more alarming for underprivileged children because mental health is one of the most unspoken and undocumented problems in India,” says Neerja Birla. After joining hands with Dr Zirak Marker, a leading child psychiatrist to start the MPower centre to offer world-class mental health care services, Birla has decided to put the spotlight on underprivileged children, who she believes, are a grossly neglected section. Launched two weeks ago, Birla’s Mpower Foundation, based in Girgaum, has started rolling out free workshops in municipal schools to tackle the problem. 

“I've always wondered why is it acceptable for the body to be unwell but not the mind? If you fall down and break a limb, you rush to the hospital. You’ll even post about it on Facebook and receive ‘get well soon’ messages from your friends. But, when it comes to mental health concerns – depression, eating disorders, anxiety, bullying, and low self-esteem – we don’t even talk about it,” says Birla, who feels the problem is brushed under the carpet because people often feel embarrassed about talking about it.

The biggest obstacle for Birla’s team of four counsellors and four visiting faculty members is eliminating stigma around the subject. Their role is to help parents and teachers spot warning signs, provide initial support and comfort and help children access professional treatment.

In these segments of society where it is difficult to afford even general health care, mental health, she adds, is a very low priority. “Due to this, there is an unwillingness to recognise the need for help” she says.

The reason behind tackling the problem early on she says is because certain neurological problems such as autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and learning disorders require early intervention in order to facilitate proper social and psychological development of children.

“If mental health concerns go untreated in childhood, there can be unpleasant outcomes such as dropping out of school, limited career options leading to a cycle of poverty, and in the most severe cases, suicide,” she explains.

In fact, one of their patients is a nine-year old who has been diagnosed by their psychiatrist with intellectual delays, features of autism, and ADHD. “The child is currently receiving medication, occupational therapy, and speech and language therapy. We also have a client with behavioural problems, oppositional behaviour, and academic difficulties. For this particular case, counselling sessions using behaviour modification and family involvement will ensure positive outcomes,” she says. Each case, she adds, is handled differently based on the individual needs in order to provide the best course of treatment.

A recent study conducted by the team revealed some alarming facts about mental health among children in India. “The number of psychiatrists per 100 000 people: 0.3, the number of mental hospital beds per 100 000 people: 2.1, the total number of mental hospitals: 43 and the admission rates to mental hospitals per 100,000 people: 14.5., “ she says.

For now, the team has started conducting workshops giving children an opportunity to share their problems. “At the very start, all they need is a patient, thoughtful and non-judgemental person to lend them an ear.”

of India’s population will suffer from mental illness by 2020

psychiatrists for 20 million Indians suffering from mental illness

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