ERNAKULAM: Stigma, blind traditional beliefs, discrimination and a lack of general awareness. These are some of the factors due to which mental health and its various aspects continue to remain a huge concern in Kerala, especially with the state reporting one of the highest suicide rates in the country. In an effort to break the shackles of conventional mindsets, the Mental Health Literacy Project (MeHeLP) has been coordinating with various NGOs, and spreading awareness on the issue through art.
“Given the high prevalence of mental ill-health in Keral, we have chosen the state to conduct a study, and to create awareness in the community, helping them learn to cope and live with it,” says MeHeLP principal investigator Raghu Raghavan, a professor with the De Montfort University in the United Kingdom.
MeHeLP India is a research project launched in 2018, aiming to spread awareness on mental health in both rural and urban communities with the help of theatre. A team of scholars and artists led by Raghu initiated the project funded by the UK Global Challenges Research Fund and the Economic and Social Research Council. Data shows that 14.4% of the state’s population aged 18 and above experience mental ill-health once in their lifetime, with 12.5% individuals developing suicidal risk.
Arts help retell stories to impart new knowledge and develop skills and practices for mental health and well-being, Raghu says. “That’s why we say culturally appropriate mental health literacy is the need of the hour.”Vaishnav (name changed), a 29-year-old from a tribal community in Attapadi was forced to drop out of college due to incessant ragging. He resorted to drinking and eventually became aggressive towards those around him, including his wife, and was ostracised from the family.
After attempting suicide, he was admitted to a hospital. “Things improved only after taking medication for my addiction and working on behavioural changes. Now I have an aim to work and take care of my kids,” he says. Partnering NGOs Mental Health Action Trust, and Mental Health Care and Research Foundation, MeHeLP conducted a study in four districts — Palakkad, Kozhikode, Malappuram and Ernakulam. Some of the themes of the plays were lived experience of mental illness, alcoholism and drug abuse, spousal abuse, stigma, and isolation, need for mental health education in schools, focus on children and the elderly.