You’re Wonderful Project is a non-profit organisation that is comprehensively trying to tackle the issues around mental health and working to remove the stigmas around the same. We at MTTN got the chance to interview Akhilesh Nair, one of the co-founders of the organisation, to talk about the work that they do and the conversation around mental health in India.
MTTN: Can you tell us a little bit about how you started the organisation and the kind of work that you do?
Akhilesh Nair: You’re Wonderful Project(YWP) is an NGO based out of New Delhi that majorly works on addressing mental health issues. This includes creating awareness about mental health, as well as improving the accessibility of mental health treatment. Gradually we’re working towards the larger goal of providing sustainable solutions to mental health issues and also preventing mental illnesses.
We started in 2014 as a small project aimed at suicide prevention when we saw a complete lack of understanding of the issue. We felt that as young people, we had a responsibility to take forward the idea of mental health to those who can’t seek help. Soon we realised that suicide is a consequence of a very bad journey. When we started working towards the prevention of suicide, we were already at a late stage – that is when we decided to work towards the larger goal of addressing mental health issues in general. Today, there are a lot of organisations trying to address these issues. However, when we started in 2014, there were few initiatives besides the larger, well-established ones. We were all very young when we started this – I was in my final year of college, my co-founder was in his second or third year. We started off doing very small events, and back in 2014, even a Free Hugs campaign was huge. We scaled from there and eventually started doing a number of events around Delhi.
Eventually, in December 2017, we registered YWP as an official NGO, and since then, we have expanded our work to a number of different events and campaigns related to mental health.
MTTN: What are the main events and projects that YWP organises?
Akhilesh Nair: One of our signature events is Disorder Dialogues, the idea of which is to provide participants with an understanding about a mental health disorder from the perspective of someone who is studying the disorder, as well as someone who has firsthand experience of struggling with the illness. This helps people understand the issue from a lived experience as well as through a theoretical lens.
We also have a programme called the SPEAK Project (School Programme for Emotional acceptance and knowledge) for students of classes 6,7, and 8 studying in Delhi. This project was started after we found a study, which said that people in the 15-21 age group are most prone to suicide. The reason we chose these classes was because around the ages of 12-14 is when students learn a lot about their emotions. What SPEAK does is provide them with a basic understanding of emotions like anger, jealousy, and tell them that these are natural feelings. Until last year, we were able to reach out to 50-60 schools in Delhi NCR, covering about 10,000 – 12,000 students. Some of these schools had 400-600 students in a single batch.
We wanted it to be a recurring workshop, instead of a one-time event, where we keep going back to the same batch of students and teach them something more complex than what they learnt about earlier. The idea ultimately is to give them an interactive experience based on day-to-day life. We are also trying to reach out to parents and teachers through this programme to bring in a larger perspective and reach more people through our work.
Similarly, we’ve started working with college students as well through a project called Our Happy Place to provide ground-level support to Delhi University colleges. We have volunteers from different universities, and the idea was to create a ‘ground level YWP’ within these different colleges. For example, having an Our Happy Place project in Manipal is like having a tiny branch of YWP; in Manipal, which helps students understand the basics of mental health and reach out for support. At the ground level, these OHPs can spread awareness and contribute towards destigmatising mental illnesses.
In order to improve the accessibility of mental health, we also have a structure where a group of psychology students provide peer support. Anyone who reaches out to us through our website or our social media channels can contact these psychology students. The understanding is that the person who is approaching us doesn’t know what exactly they are going through, so the idea is to tell them if this is something that requires professional help or not. If someone needs psychological help, we are also in contact with a number of psychologists, and we will connect with the relevant psychologist or therapist. We also try to provide this in an extremely affordable way because we realise that a lot of the people who contact us are students.
MTTN: How has the organisation been able to adapt to working during the lockdown?
Akhilesh Nair: In the pandemic, we saw that a lot of the things we thought we could not do online are being done online. In the past six months, our meetings have been more regular than ever before. Earlier we couldn’t host meetings within the organisation every month, and now we are hosting skill-based workshops every weekend.
A lot of our events did come to a halt because of the lockdown. We were even planning to organise a Mental Health Theatre Festival, working with student drama organisations across the country, and to bring all of them together to have plays around mental health. Unfortunately, just as we had our second meeting about it, the lockdown happened.
Despite that, we have managed to remain quite active during the lockdown. We have reached out to more psychologists than ever before in order to make professional help more accessible. With the pandemic forcing people to stay at home for months, there has been a rise in mental health issues, and we needed to work with more psychologists.
We also started a series called ‘feel-good news’ on all of our social media channels to make sure that people have something to make them feel better.
We have also collaborated with several other organisations and launched an entire campaign revolving around the intersectionality of different organisations. For example, we started working with World Wildlife Fund India, around the basic idea that the environment plays a huge role in our mental health. The idea behind the campaign is that mental health is important in the working of a lot of organisations, and collaborating with them would increase awareness about the intersectionality of these issues.
MTTN: You said you go to schools as a part of the SPEAK project. How do the schools’ administrations react to programmes like this?
Akhilesh Nair: In general, schools are not very keen on outsiders coming to the campus, and talking about mental health. The main reason for this is that they don’t want to pay people. So, we make sure that we don’t charge them anything for the campaigns that we do. In addition, a lot of the volunteers we had going to these schools were people who were alumni of the schools themselves, and so the administration was willing to let us organise it.
However, we’ve realised that once we manage to conduct the first round of campaigns the schools are quite willing to let us continue. We have received calls from schools requesting us to conduct a second round of programmes for a different batch of students. In fact, some schools even contacted us, asking if we would conduct these workshops online. Even the teachers are realising that this is something that their students require, and that’s a big victory for us.
MTTN: What do you think about the portrayal of mental health in mainstream media currently?
Akhilesh Nair: People in power and those who have influence amongst people have a responsibility to be sensitive in the kind of things that they are saying. Even recently, there have been certain celebrities who have made extremely irresponsible statements regarding mental health. There are a lot of people who casually do certain things that they don’t realise can be harmful.
Even our movies use mental health issues as comic relief. If that’s not the case, they have extremely sad and exaggerated depictions instead of portraying these as issues that can be dealt with through professional help.
There is a lot of responsibility on people who are in positions of power and most of them fail to take it up. But at the same time, I do think there are some people who try to work for the greater good and act responsibly. We have had celebrities approaching us, saying that they want to work with us and spread awareness about mental health.
MTTN: How accessible do you think information regarding mental health is to the general public in India?
Akhilesh Nair :Most of the organisations, which currently exist for this cause, are still reaching only very few people, so accessibility is definitely a huge problem. But despite that, we have also realised that we have come a long way from where we were when our organisation started. The amount of information accessible to people regarding mental health issues is a lot more than ever before.
We can’t expect the conversation to suddenly become better overnight, it’s a long process, and we are all responsible for it. That’s where a lot of the work that is being done in schools and colleges by a number of organisations makes a difference. Although we ourselves are a small organisation, we think we have had some impact in terms of improving the conversation. It’s only through the collective understanding of the importance of mental health that we will be able to reach out to more people.
MTTN: Can you tell us how the organisation funds itself currently and how readers can contribute towards YWP’s cause?
Akhilesh Nair: The funding we have right now is quite basic, and everyone who works with the organisation is a volunteer. One of the main sources of our funding is from donations through people who attend our workshops. In addition, we also do fundraisers from time to time. We want to make sure that we don’t leave our volunteers uncompensated for all the work that they’re putting in— so we’re trying to reach a scale where we are able to get grants for our NGO.
If someone wishes to donate to YWP, they can go to our website and contribute any amount they wish to. We try to create a relationship with the people who donate and make sure that they are aware of every single penny they are spending on us.
We are also creating a database where we keep track of all the work that we are doing so that people can know what they are donating towards.
We also have different departments in which people can volunteer — a Design team, an HR team, a Research and Development team publishing papers about mental health, a creative team working on relatable and informative content about mental health, and a Communications Department. We post about any available opportunities on our social media channels, and people can apply to work with us.
In addition, even when we don’t have any openings, people can send us their CV and tell us how they can contribute to the organisation. If we find their profile interesting and feel that they can fit themselves well in the organisation, we can still take them in.
To learn more about You’re Wonderful Project and donate to their cause, visit their website.
Interviewed by Sudarshan Sivakumar for MTTN
Edited by Radhika Taneja for MTTN
Featured image by Tirthik Saha for MTTN