Prioritizing Mental Health Support In India's Development Sector

A study published in the Lancet also presents insights into the varying burden of mental health issues across different regions in the country. Northeastern and southern states face a higher prevalence of mental health issues compared to central and northern states

The non-profit sector in India plays a vital role in addressing poverty, hunger, and disease outbreaks. The demanding nature of work and direct engagement with vulnerable communities often takes a toll on the mental wellbeing of non-profit workers. A report by the World Health Organization (WHO) indicates that one in five Indians will experience depression at least once in their lifetime, with an estimated 56 million individuals (about the population of Andhra Pradesh) currently suffering from depression and 38 million grappling with anxiety disorders.  

The report also highlights that depression is about 50 per cent more commonly prevalent among women. A study published in the Lancet also presents insights into the varying burden of mental health issues across different regions in the country. Northeastern and southern states face a higher prevalence of mental health issues compared to central and northern states.  

The state of India’s mental health when reviewed through the lens of its non-profit sector is even more significant as the mental health and wellbeing of frontline service providers addressing community needs is seldom reviewed.   

Some stressors in the non-profit workplace, as identified by the Mariwala Health Initiative include threat to personal safety, job security concerns on account of funding limitations, limited capacity-building resources, and limiting narratives around the role of social workers. 

Recognizing the pressing need to understand the state of mental health support within the sector, Dasra's collaborative for grassroots NGOs in India, the Rebuild India Fund, is designing a survey focused on mental health with diverse NGO leaders across the country. The survey aims to understand current trends and challenges faced by NGO leaders regarding the mental health of the communities they serve as well as their own and their employee’s mental health.  

Presented below are insights from early conversations with leaders in Northeastern, Western and Southern states, where mental health issues are particularly prevalent.  

Fighting stigmatization with inclusion 

In the Ri-bhoi district of Meghalaya, predominantly inhabited by Khasi tribes, organizations providing mental health support are often stigmatized as "mental asylums." 

To foster a supportive environment for children and adolescents from local tribes, the indigenous child rights organization, Faith Foundation, has been working tirelessly to normalize conversations about mental health. Notably, the schools have successfully raised awareness and are planning to advocate for the inclusion of counselors in government schools. 

Karthikeyan Ganesan, the founder of Sristi Foundation in Tamil Nadu, highlights the absence of focus on mental health for intellectual and developmental disabilities and the prevalent exclusion of persons with these health issues from mainstream society, particularly in rural areas. 

As part of their residential program, Sristi has created a safe space for children and persons with disabilities in rural areas of Villupuram district of Tamil Nadu. In the Sristi village, the organization provides training to enable persons with disabilities to communicate their needs, emotions and mental health through alternative mediums, building their capacities to lead a life of dignity. 

Poonam Kathuria, director of Society for Women's Action and Training Initiative (SWATI) - a feminist organization in Gujarat focused on preventing violence against women, expressed the need to identify perceptions of leisure and wellbeing within communities where there is no concept of it. 

Recently, Rahima Khatoon from Nari-O-Shishu Kalyan Kendra who participated in a mental health training program for non-profits, was able to successfully counsel a young girl against engaging in fatal self-harm. She credits her confidence and calm approach to the training she received which has helped enhance her own mental health.  

While some non-profit organizations in the country have made progress in destigmatizing mental health, others face challenges in their efforts or are yet to prioritize mental health services for communities. Grameen Sahara, an organization dedicated to assisting weavers and artisans from economically disadvantaged families in remote villages of Assam and Meghalaya, notes that mental health remains a taboo subject in the area. 

Vikramaditya Das, a representative from Grameen Sahara, admits that recurrent instances of crop failure have adversely affected farmers' mental health and wellbeing. However, given the multitude of issues related to livelihoods and climate affecting these predominantly agrarian communities, addressing mental health is yet to become a priority  

Addressing mental-health and wellbeing within organizations 

Poonam Kathuria identifies the importance of employees in the workplace expressing leisure and wellbeing within SWATI. It has established a system of mentorship that enables conversations on wellbeing and mental health. While Faith Foundation has taken the step of granting its employees a one-week leave to address stress and dwindling mental health. Additionally, its leaders also emphasize the importance of vulnerability and personal storytelling as effective means to break the glass ceiling of mental health stigma. 

Reflecting on his own journey, Karthikeyan Ganesan, who is a member of a founder’s circle, recognizes the importance of developing a wellbeing support forum especially for leaders of grassroots organization who often find themselves in self-driven work environments. 

The path toward addressing mental health challenges requires collective efforts from both non-profit organizations and the wider community. Rahima Khatoon suggests that the funders should provide dedicated funds towards holistic employee wellbeing with allocations for building capacities of employees through mental health training to serve their communities better. 

What lies ahead 

While mental health is being acknowledged as a pertinent issue by non-profits, it continues to be a low-priority issue to the exceptionally vulnerable communities they serve. To examine mental health from an intersectional approach, non-profits must first identify the contextual stressors that affect vulnerable communities and empower them to realize wellbeing as a fundamental right. 

Similarly, on an institutional level, healthier and more resilient work environments can be fostered by simply creating safe spaces to nurture wellbeing conversations. Supporting access to easily available mental health resources, professionals and training of non-profit staff can have a doubly impactful effect on vulnerable communities. Building agency to dedicatedly prioritize mental health and wellbeing in the non-profit sector can break down barriers, reduce stigma, and create a more inclusive society for all. 

Tags assigned to this article:
Mental Health developing sector wellbeing


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