Visualise this: Many stalls are put up in an area. A number of people visit each of these stalls. Many more people move from one stall to another, peeping in, observing the displays, interacting with those manning the stalls, and may be even transacting. People meeting strangers, striking up conversations, exchanging information and thoughts, and exploring the things that are available there. A familiar face here, a known person there – the hand waves, the ‘Hi’s!, and the catching up. If a market place came to mind, you are not wrong. For indeed, the above was my experience at the Mental Health Santhe, organised by National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS), Bengaluru, on November 3 2022 at its Convention Centre.
Stalls and activities
‘Santhe’ is the Kannada word for a fair or bazaar, and this santhe had almost all elements of a fair, including a food court that served beverages and snacks. Around 50 different stalls were put up by various departments of NIMHANS and many groups/ organisations, working in the field of mental health.
Different activities were organised, from quizzes (with chocolates or smiley stickers as rewards if you got an answer right) to photo spots. There were also lots of reading material and information galore.
Also on display were items like cushion covers, quilts, sambar powder, cookies, sweaters, jewellery, wood carvings, and baskets made by people with mental health challenges.
Needless to say, the decibel levels were measurable, but thankfully not off the charts.
The inauguration ceremony
The Mental Health Santhe was inaugurated by the chief guest of the day, Dr Kalyanasundaram S, Senior Consultant Psychiatrist, and Honorary Advisor, Richmond Fellowship Society, Bengaluru Branch. As he would share later during his address, “It is very humbling to have been invited to inaugurate this santhe at the very place I first stepped into 605 months ago, on June 2 1972, as a student.”
Following the invocation, Dr Prabha S Chandra, Dean (Behavioural Sciences), welcomed all gathered. This was followed by the chief guest’s address, during which Dr Kalyanasundaram talked a little about his personal journey in the field of psychiatry, working in NIMHANS, and psychiatric rehabilitation being something he was committed to.
“There is no health without mental health”, he said. “Stigma (associated with mental health illness) prevents people from reaching where they need to reach (seeking help) at the earliest. Delay in treatment is not advisable. We, as a society, should be caring enough,” he added. “Media should provide information to help reach (mental health) support to people,” was his thought on the role of media.
Modern day challenges in mental health
Talking about some of the prevalent challenges in the area of mental health, Dr Kalyanasundaram touched upon topics like suicide, social media and its impact on the youth, and social media addiction and its consequences. He also talked about the need for early recognition and treatment of mental health illnesses, and the need for collaboration among different agencies working in the area of mental health. “Connect, collaborate and work together. Collective efforts will provide much needed help and support to most people,” he suggested.
Launch of digital detox helpline
Following this, some newsletters and other IEC materials were formally released. The launch of a couple of awareness and motivational videos and a free subscription-based WhatsApp messaging service were also announced.
The digital detox helpline was formally launched and is expected to be active from December 2022. The helpline number is 9480829675. It functions on Fridays, between 9.30 am and 1 pm.
The need for awareness around mental health
Dr Pratima Murthy, Director, NIMHANS, spoke next and shared a little about the santhe, “Collective effort starts from our home. We have come together for a bigger cause than ourselves. We have a mixed group and there is representation from different backgrounds.”
Some of the points mentioned by her included the importance of mental health and the need for all to come together; the importance of getting treatment, after care, and rehabilitation; people being familiar with their rights in the area of mental health; people taking responsibility and extending beyond the self to see what society needs in this area; and the need to make mental health care available, accessible, and approachable. She reiterated Dr Kalyanasundaram’s comment, “No health without mental health – physical and mental health are not different.”
Dr Murthy further spoke about learning how to take care of oneself, networking for a comprehensive solution, the need for kindness and compassion, and the role of organisations in creating a win-win situation by caring for the mental health of their people.
Dr Kalyanasundaram was thereafter felicitated on stage. This was followed by Dr B S Shankaranarayana Rao proposing the vote of thanks.
A genuine interest in mental health issues
And then it was time to visit the santhe.
The atmosphere was one of enthusiasm – very unlike what I had pictured when I stepped into the convention centre earlier in the morning. I had expected largely disinterested people looking into their phones while the visitors looked at the displays and moved on. What I saw, though, was people inviting conversations about different aspects of mental health, colourful posters, painstakingly made models, enthusiastic volunteers, and a lot of information about the still-taboo topic of mental health being presented and exchanged in innovative ways.
Some of the various departments of NIMHANS represented included the department of psychiatry, tele medicine centre, geriatric clinic and services, brain stimulation services, centre for addiction medicine (CAM), clinical nursing and physiotherapy center. It was interesting to find that NIMHANS even offered a walking tour of its campus.
Also present in the space were hospitals, half-way homes, NGOs and companies working in different areas and offering gatekeeper and other training programmes, individuals and groups offering therapy and counselling services, suicide prevention helplines, disaster response teams, those involved in geriatric mental health, children-specific care groups, mental health ambulance service, and a self-help group of care givers for people with mental illnesses, to name a few.
There were organisations and groups from a couple of other districts too participating in this event. Representation from different parts of Bengaluru included areas like Yelahanka New Town, Fraser Town, Jayanagar, J P Nagar, Vyalikaval, Sivanchetty Garden, and Hosur road. Those from places outside Bengaluru too, like Channapatna and Chennai, had put up information stalls.
A conversation with Dr Kalyanasundaram
I caught up with Dr Kalyanasundaram for a quick chat about the santhe and mental health. The key takeaways from that conversation included:
- This santhe was an eye opener. The energy and enthusiasm of the people were not only amazing, but infectious too.
- Mental health is a very important an aspect of life, and it cannot be left only to the specialists to do the job. Families and the society as a whole need to come together to help people with health concerns.
- Any established physical illness, diabetes, high blood pressure, thyroid disease, cancers, and viral fevers, including COVID-19, will impact the mental health of an individual. Both (the physical ailment and the associated mental health challenges, if any) need to be treated assiduously for recovery.
- When we talk of eradicating stigma, we need to start with hospitals. When any big corporate hospital opens a new facility, it lists out all the specialities and the available specialists in a prominent manner for everyone to see as they walk / drive past. Psychiatry / mental health is however a glaring omission! It is as though the hospital itself is ashamed to say that it has mental health specialists. This needs to change.
- Many people employed in the IT sectors work beyond the mandated hours, as they have to cater to American, British and Australian time zones, for example. So do people in the gig economy, like food delivery partners and vehicle drivers. Due to the stress and varied, often long, hours of work, sleep and quality of life invariably get compromised. The result? Panic attacks, anxiety and depression. Both physical and mental health take a hit. Companies need to ask themselves a pertinent question – is making more money the only criteria for success? They need to keep in mind that mental health of their people and partners matter too.
Before I knew it, I had spent around four hours at the santhe, and it was time to leave. As I stepped out of the bustling fair, these words of Dr Chandra echoed in my mind,”‘(I hope) the santhe becomes a travelling circus outside NIMHANS too.”
I sincerely wish that such events are held more often and in more places so that more people can get educated about mental health, and gradually the associated stigma will be wiped away.