According to a study published by the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health (UD/MH), larger cities are associated with higher rates of mental health problems compared to rural areas and smaller cities: an almost 40% higher risk of depression, over 20% more anxiety, and double the risk of schizophrenia, in addition to loneliness, isolation and stress. When I bring up these compelling statistics during my conversation with Pattie Gonsalves, Project Director, It’s Ok To Talk, she advises that I take the data with a pinch of salt. “In fact, this is one of the reasons we chose to procure stories from non-metros like Manipal (Karnataka), Chandigarh (Haryana), Azamgarh (Uttar Pradesh), Haldwani (Uttarakhand) and Imphal (Manipur),” says the founder of Mann Mela, a web museum of the youth’s mental health stories from across India. “Young people from all over the country face various emotional challenges which are often not captured; instead, the spotlight is usually shone on their city-based counterparts. This breeds a sense of alienation and deters them from coming forward with their lived experiences,” she explains.
Mann Mela is one of the programs housed under It’s Ok To Talk, an umbrella mental health initiative by Sangath, which is a 25-year-old organisation committed to improving evidence-based interventions in mental healthcare. I pause quizzically as I try to wrap my head around this three-layered mechanism of mental wellbeing before the 33-year-old mental health advocate elucidates. “Let’s say Sangath is the host organisation. It’s Ok To Talk is one of its youth initiatives laid out in a flat, story-sharing platform, whereas Mann Mela comprises strong, individual narratives related to caste, gender, sexuality and childhood trauma which have the potential to be presented in a richer, dynamic and more detailed manner.”
And sure enough, an unrushed perusal of Mann Mela’s website familiarises me with the extraordinary journeys of seven participants whose stories were selected from among 70+ entries across the country: Hyderabad-based Monica Mamidi (28) and Haldwani-based Vidushi Karnatic (20) overcame the stigma of asking for help when they needed it; Azamgarh-based Anjali (20) fought against the ingrained gender bias in her community to open people’s eyes to injustices against women; Sam used her therapy sessions to get over the feelings of inadequacy she grappled with as a result of being abandoned by her parents; Manipur-based Pavel Sagolsem navigated the path to their gender awakening by rejecting the norm of binaries; Chandigarh-based Tarini Chawla learned that her identity went beyond her choice of career; Manipur-based Sadam Hanjabam came to terms with his queer-North East-Muslim identity after almost losing his life twice. Each of the contributors’ stories has been assiduously put together by a team of writers, artists, designers and technologists who work at the human-centred design firm Quicksand.
Like countless other initiatives that were upended by the pandemic, Mann Mela had to revisit their initial model of touring the country as a physical travelling museum when nationwide lockdowns were implemented. I hear Gonsalves smile sadly through the phone when she tells me how the team had planned for the museum to be set up in five cities across India over the period
of a year. “We actually did a pilot of what the travelling museum would be like at an arts festival in Goa. For one of the stories, we recreated a section of the contributor’s bedroom with different objects and provided headphones to listen to audio cues where the individual actually narrates their story to the listener,” she says nostalgically. “But we did end up learning some valuable lessons too – Mann Mela was birthed without the design team and contributors ever having met each other, which was quite challenging considering the value we place in one-on-one consultations so that participants feel more comfortable sharing their stories with us.”
So what’s on the cards for Mann Mela once we’re out of the woods? Suffice to say, Gonsalves isn’t resting on her laurels; the Delhi-based researcher has already started laying the groundwork for Outlive, a new program under It’s Ok To Talk, which will specifically target the issue of suicide in young India. “Death by suicide is the most common cause of death among the 15 to 25
age group in India, which is why we want to focus on suicide prevention next,” she explains. “But it won’t just be a public awareness initiative like Mann Mela – we’re also looking at creating peer support platforms and aiding young people who actually work in law and policy to impact mental health legislation in India.”