India has 20% of the world’s young people, and mental health problems are the leading health concern for this group. Driven by academic pressures, sexual abuse, socially conservative attitudes that prohibit romantic relationships, marriage, research puts young India is in a precarious situation, with the highest number of youth suicides globally, and where less than 10% of youth have access to any mental health care.A systemic lack of investment in public health, coupled with severe social stigma, thus makes it difficult to get people to talk or seek help. ‘Mann Mela’ (Festival of the Mind), a digital traveling mental health museum aims to change this status quo, by encouraging people with lived mental health experiences to reclaim spaces and reframe conversations to advocate for rights and challenging rampant discrimination.
Launched by Sangath, a Goa based mental health research organization, in collaboration with It’s ok to Talk, a public engagement platform, Mann Mela, tells stories of young Indians with mental health challenges, their recoveries, hopes and aspirations, through formats such as interactive comics, animated films and virtual reality, created to be interactive, engaging and informative.“Mann Mela’s stories highlight how young people’s mental health in India is affected by a range of issues including gender and sexuality-based discrimination, socially conservative attitudes that prohibit romantic relationships and marriage across castes and religion, pressure to perform well academically, caste-based harassment, and sexual abuse. At the same time, each story highlights the individual’s journey of finding meaning, hope and recovery, and through this offering hope to many others.” says Pattie Gonsalves, who leads the project at Sangath. The initiative of creating a mental health museum hopes to build awareness around mental health as an integral part of our daily lives and how managing difficulties is crucial to enable young people to thrive.
Over the next two years, Mann Mela will be traveling to Goa, New Delhi, Bhopal, Imphal and Mumbai, featuring young people’s stories through interactive comics, voiceovers and artifacts, reflecting on a range of mental health needs within gender, sexuality, social, cultural and geographic context. The digital edition of the museum on the other hand, showcases individual recovery stories on how to talk about common mental illnesses, seek help, information on breaking stigma and building resilience. Each story is presented using an art and technology-assisted exhibit, enabling one to interact with a story-teller’s world as they travel through their journey of finding meaning and recovery.
One such story is that of Sadam Hanjabam from Imphal, Manipur. Having grown up, witnessing insurgency, random police arrests, violent deaths from close quarters and an undisclosed queer identity, the mental health museum captures Sadam’s journey from Imphal to Mumbai and his mental health struggles. Sensitive illustrations paint a picture for the audiences, highlighting Sadam’s fight with casual racism, isolation, pressures of fitting in, despair and substance abuse, eventually culminating in him embracing his story publicly. Sadam adds, “My journey with accepting myself enabled me to not only save my life, but also set up the first registered youth and queer led-focused organization called Ya_All in the North-Eastern region of India. Sadam concludes, “I want you to know that sometimes, it’s ok to be vulnerable, and it’s a huge step to accept our vulnerabilities. They are a part of who we are. Once we do this, we can find ways to turn them into our biggest strengths.”
The team behind Mann Mela is youth-led, and driven by mental health professionals, artists, and graphic and game designers. The process of creating each story for the museum is unique, using a collaborative research and design process over many months. Mann Mela focuses on breaking stigma and promoting recovery and action focused information through its stories and learning resources, which are available free of cost in Hindi and English.
Vikram Patel, a leading international mental health expert at Harvard Medical School, and the advisor on the Mann Mela project, said, “Who could have imagined that the world would be looking at a spiraling health crisis unlike any witnessed in our lifetime? In addition to the actual threat of the infection, mental health is emerging as a key concern especially for young people. Our project lays emphasis on young people’s stories about the centrality of mental health for well-being, the vulnerabilities which some experience and are being greatly exacerbated by the times we are now living now, and the routes to resilience and recovery. We want these stories to be told and heard throughout India, a country with the largest number of young people in the world!”
For more mental health-related content, check out Bringing Mental Health Out of the Shadows.