How these women built communities to aid mental health, well-being

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Bengaluru: In the past year, many people have felt a deep sense of isolation and anxiety as the pandemic upended every area of normal life. A number of new communities on mental health and well-being are helping them navigate uncertainty and find emotional footing. Some initiatives are driving fresh thinking in the field by examining how societal factors influence how we feel.
The Listeners Collective, founded by Ganga Nair, is a multidisciplinary group that supports healing journeys and encourages wide-ranging conversations on mental health and related research. The Burrow, started by Samira Philip, Anoushka Akhouri and Jyothis Thomas, is an online platform that seeks to make counselling more accessible. Jaskiran Gill’s Listening Inn is a peer support network, whose specially trained volunteers lend their ears to people searching for a safe space to share their struggles, joys or everyday experiences.
Jaskiran quit her corporate job in 2015 and joined the social sector. The subject of mental health was always close to her heart and she became an active advocate. “When I said I want to raise awareness, the most common advice I got was: ‘Talk as much as you can’. But talking alone doesn’t work. To help someone, you must be a good listener,” she says. “Those who need support or a sympathetic ear are often wary of reaching out because friends or family members may pass judgements, assign labels or suggest quick fixes. It’s not that they have bad intentions; they lack understanding of mental health issues.”
Jaskiran observed that comments like “be positive” or “it’s all in your mind” did more harm than good and that a more nuanced approach was required to engage people who bottled up their feelings. “The desire to help anyone who wants to be heard prompted me to start Listening Inn last year. It’s a community where trained listeners answer calls. They don’t intervene in problems, but enable the callers to get clarity about their emotions,” she explains. “People don’t call only to narrate their problems. They also describe positive developments. Social structures are so disconnected because of Covid-19 that many don’t find someone with whom they can share happiness.”
Listening Inn has trained 60 volunteers, mostly women, and plans to increase the figure to 100 this month. It is on the team of the International Listening Association.
People aged between 18 and 30 are the largest group of callers. “There are anxieties about education and jobs. Entrepreneurs whose business has suffered are unable to tell their families what they go through. College students want an outlet as they feel people shut them down without paying attention to what they are saying or experiencing,” she says.
Ganga is a counselling psychologist with 10 years of experience. She founded The Listeners Collective with like-minded experts last year. “When we think of mental health, we view it as a very private or individualistic topic. So, the focus and burden of managing it fall on the individual. The common narrative is: you have a problem and you must sort yourself out. We rarely look at socioeconomic, sociopolitical or sociocultural factors that interact with one’s well-being. We don’t take a wider approach at intersectional length when we talk about the issue,” she says. “Bringing full appreciation of all these aspects to the therapy room, group sessions and mental health conversations was one of the motivations for starting this community.”
Ganga believes that the impact of external factors should not be ruled out. “Let’s take the example of stress. Many see it as an individual’s inability to manage daily life or hurdles. They say: ‘Others don’t have a problem, only you do’. This is a distorted idea of mental health. Stress could be a function of economic hardship or workplace culture,” she says.
Calling for a broader approach in therapy, she adds: “A practitioner could argue that they can only control things in front of them, i.e. the person in counselling. But this way, we are only teaching the person to adapt to or cope with systems that are unjust or problematic. This is not a long-term solution.”
The Listeners Collective has developed a range of counselling programmes. It provides a therapeutic space to members of the LGBTQ+ community and has collaborated with ‘India Love Project’.
Therapists Samira, Anoushka and Jyothis established The Burrow in 2020 after completing their MSc in counselling psychology at Christ College. “In March last year, we completed the final viva in the morning and the college shut in the afternoon because of the lockdown. We thought it would be a short lockdown. When things didn’t reopen, we discussed our career prospects and also observed that many people were distressed. We started an online platform to make counselling accessible to all,” says Samira.
For the first few months, they provided free counselling. “Several people were facing financial problems because of Covid-19, so we offered pro bono services,” she says.
People in the age group of 21-28 reached out the most. “Many had returned to their hometown from college or work and struggled to deal with the loss of their independence and private space. Some didn’t have a conducive environment at home. Family conflicts and adjustment issues cropped up,” she says.
She saw problems emerge in stages. “Initially, it was anxiety about studies and jobs. Later, many wondered if the situation would ever change. Distance from their partners and friends was also a major stressor,” she says. “Some were wary of telling parents that they were taking therapy and spoke at night.”
The idea of empowering people inspired Samira to become a therapist. “Therapy is commonly misunderstood as ‘fixing problems’. The real aim is to enable the individual to make decisions and provide them with tools to manage difficult situations,” she says.

, How these women built communities to aid mental health, well-being,  HEALING MENTAL HEALTH TOGETHER
, How these women built communities to aid mental health, well-being,  HEALING MENTAL HEALTH TOGETHER

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