The sprawling slum lies in the shadow of sooty, old world factories—many of them shut for years now. This is Shama Parveen’s home in Ward No. 4 of the Kamarhati municipality, in the northern fringes of Kolkata. The newly elected Trinamool Congress councillor informs us as we walk around in her constituency that almost 20% of her electorate suffers from some sort of psychological distress: According to a study conducted by the Anjali Mental Health and Human Rights Organization, a significant section suffers from high levels of stress and anxiety, depression, alcoholism and drug abuse; some of them need medical intervention.

All ears: Parveen’s (left) training has taught her to watch out for signs of psychological distress. Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

It seems odd that a politician wants to discuss the mental health of her electorate. The issue has not exactly been uppermost in their development agenda. “Yet I see that the mental state of the person is often directly related to the social surroundings," says the 42-year-old, who is also a teacher at a local primary school.

Parveen would know. She has grappled with mental health issues for 13 years, since the birth of the first of her two sons, Danish Akhtar, who is a slow learner. In school, among neighbours, at the playground, Akhtar was constantly discussed, ridiculed and ostracized, pushing the uncommunicative little boy farther into a shell. It didn’t help that Parveen’s husband, Shamimuddin Ansari, a worker in a local blade factory, too would get irked by Akhtar’s withdrawn nature. “The communication gap between father and son was such that Danish would get beaten too. It was the most difficult phase of my life," remembers Parveen.

In 2007, Anjali was launching an initiative, Jana Manas (Mind of the Collective), in three municipalities around Kolkata—Kamarhati, Khardah and Rajarhat-Gopalpur—to work in the sphere of mental health, human rights and gender discrimination among low-income groups. “We wanted to work with the self-help groups which do wonderful work. We thought why not present these women with a new idea—promoting positive mental health," says Ratnaboli Ray, founder of Anjali. Self-help groups (SHGs) are state-supported entrepreneurship and vocational training schemes run by women’s cooperatives. Anjali tapped into the SHG network in Kamarhati to spread the word about Jana Manas.

Parveen was among the first to sign up for the initiative. “Parveen’s experience and her willingness to fight for her son and learn made her an ideal candidate," Ray adds. Her two-part, year-long training included coaching in general awareness and wider knowledge of mental health, enhancing perception levels and listening ability, being more communicative and sensitive, and finally, counselling the distressed.

“After I started incorporating Anjali’s training in my own life, the change in perceptions towards Danish has been outstanding. My husband has been very cooperative and even the neighbours have accepted him," says Parveen. “Danish too has opened up. This is what a little understanding of an issue like mental health can do."

Among all the training modules—which include encouraging the mentally distressed to share their troubles, controlling anger and stress, understanding adolescent behaviour, learning to be non-judgmental and enhancing tolerance levels—it is her training in communication skills that has helped Praveen the most. “I used to spend long hours trying to understand my son. He would try to open up, but fail. After many attempts he would finally be able to clearly state what was on his mind. This was a good way for him to give vent to his feelings," she says.

Parveen’s interaction with other people afflicted by mental problems began when she was chosen as the coordinator of an Anjali-run kiosk for counselling and awareness campaigns at the Kamarhati municipality. “Not only has Parveen been able to improve the situation in her family, but as councillor she has taken it upon herself to improve the lot of her voters," says Ray. “For us, she is representative of empowerment."

Amrita Roy contributed to this story.

Write to