Neerja Birla: Mental health is always on the back-burner

Neerja Birla, founder of Mpower, talks about the need for a change in the perception of mental health


Neerja Birla. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Neerja Birla. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Mpower, a Mumbai-based mental healthcare initiative by Neerja Birla, wife of Aditya Birla Group chairman Kumar Mangalam Birla, has grown bigger in its second year. It now has a diagnostics centre providing physiological and psychiatric services. In November, Birla also launched the MPower Foundation under the aegis of the corporate social responsibility initiative of Idea Cellular Ltd, an Aditya Birla Group company, to reach out to the economically challenged and create awareness.

Ahead of their annual awareness-building cycling event, Ride to Mpower (15km and 35km), Birla talks about the challenges and expansion plans. Edited excerpts:

What are the plans for Mpower?

The expansion plans include opening three-four more centres (of which two would be in Mumbai) in the coming year, whereas with the foundation we will reach out to schools, colleges and corporates.

The centre is located at Khareghat Colony, Hughes Road, which is one of the most privileged neighbourhoods in Mumbai. Is that by design?

Mental health has an impact on a large part of the urban population. Yes, (at our centre) we are reaching out to a certain section of society. It is well known that a lot of high achievers have mental-health concerns. We are trying to create dialogue around this subject to normalize it.

Are schools and colleges open to discussions on mental health?

We have reached out to 100-120 schools in Mumbai since the foundation started. Everybody knows that this is a serious topic. Look at the statistics. The incidence of suicides is highest in the age group of 15-29. The sad part is that schools are just not open to talk about it. Only four schools have allowed our team to reach out to parents.

Our programme encompasses reaching out to students, teachers and parents—all key stakeholders. For teachers, we look at how to identify a child going through an issue, how to deal with it. For parents, we discuss how to deal with issues at home and how to identify (problems), and for the students, it is about making them aware of the symptoms.

We are really struggling as there are very few takers, and this even as we offer the first workshop, which is an introduction to mental healthcare, free. The response has been really appalling.

Why do you think the schools are so unreceptive?

Like I said earlier: It is about bringing about a cultural shift in perception. Mental health or mental well-being is always on the back-burner, something that is not important.

Ride to Mpower, the second edition of the cyclathon, will be held on Sunday. Registration is open today, 11am-8pm, at the High Street Phoenix mall, Mumbai. For more details, visit Mpowerminds.com.

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